Election officials work to protect against hacking, and bolster voter confidence | St. Louis Public Radio

Election officials work to protect against hacking, and bolster voter confidence

Sep 10, 2018

As some election officials see it, public fears about the hacking of American elections are almost as serious of an issue as the actual threat of such hacking.

“The product we’re trying to generate here is voter confidence,’’ said Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap at an election security conference Monday in St. Louis County.

Lack of confidence in an accurate count, he said, could lead to people deciding it’s pointless to vote.

Dunlap, a Democrat, was among the bipartisan speakers at the opening session for the National Election Security Summit, held at World Wide Technologies’ national headquarters.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen addresses election officials from roughly a dozen states at an election security summit held in St. Louis County.
Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio

Roughly a dozen secretaries of state from around the country are attending at least part of the two-day summit, organized by Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who headlined Monday’s gathering, told the officials that there’s no question that foreign agents attempted to interfere with the 2016 election, and may use new methods to try again.

“We cannot underestimate the efforts of our adversaries. We cannot assume that what they are doing today is what they will do tomorrow,” she said.

Nielsen emphasized that there is no evidence that hackers changed any votes in the 2016 presidential election. But she said local election officials need to remain vigilant.

“You’re on the front lines,’’ Nielsen said. “What we need to know is what you’re seeing on the front lines. That helps us understand better  what we’re all facing, and helps us to make sure we’re supporting you in the best way possible.”

Officials on guard against 'phishing'

Some of the sessions, including those featuring security experts, are closed to reporters and the public. Ashcroft said the aim was to allow election officials to be candid about the security challenges they are facing.

Several secretaries of state said their offices frequently see “phishing’’ efforts by hackers seeking entry into the offices’ computers. But none reported any hacking success.

St. Louis County Republican elections director Rick Stream, one of the attendees, said the biggest problem is protecting voter-registration files, which are accessible on the internet in Missouri and most other states. Such files, he said, are likely the prime target for hackers.

Most election voting systems are fairly secure, Stream said, because they are not connected to the internet.

“Any system that’s online can be hacked," he said. "What we’re trying to prevent here is for somebody to be able to hack into the voter registration system and alter an outcome.”

State election officials are receptive to Nielsen's call for all states to have paper ballot trails in place by 2020, when the next presidential election is held.

Homeland Security Undersecretary Christopher Krebs said there is no question of Russian attempts to influence the 2018 elections on social media, but so far there’s no evidence of successful foreign hacking into the nation’s voting systems.

"We continue to see Russian actors attempt to sew discord, divisiveness and just create rifts between the American public," Krebs said. 

He added that federal and state authorities are “not waiting for a piece of threatening intelligence’’ before taking steps to protect American elections.

“Every single state is engaged in this effort,’’ Krebs said.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, said the fact that the 50 states actually run their own elections helps protect election security in the United States.

“The reason our elections are so successful is because they’re not centralized,’’ Pate said. “We’re pretty confident that no one in Moscow is voting in Iowa elections.”

The exception, he added with a chuckle, are voters who reside in Moscow, Iowa.

Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter: @jmannies