State’s top elections official talks security — and mitigating Russian interference in 2016 | KNKX

State’s top elections official talks security — and mitigating Russian interference in 2016

Aug 1, 2019

Last week, the Senate intelligence committee released a report on how Russia targeted U.S. election systems in 2016.

The report’s release happened to follow Robert Mueller’s appearance before lawmakers, during which he warned that Russia made multiple attempts in the past to interfere in U.S. elections, was doing so currently, and would certainly do so during upcoming campaigns.

Security always has been on the minds of people who administer elections at the state and local levels. Decades ago, it might have meant making sure people only got one ballot in line. Now it’s a lot different.

“I’ve been doing elections at the county and state for 25 years,” said Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman. “We all got into the business to administer elections, but every one of us has had to become an IT professional. I know more about servers and security protocols than I thought I ever wanted to.”

She says Washington state was prepared for the intrusions in 2016, and was among 21 states able to detect suspicious activities and report them to authorities.

“We were able to block and keep them out,” she said. “We’ve had an online presence long enough that our IT professionals that safeguard our system know what normal activity is, and know what to watch for. And when they see suspicious activity, they block it and report it to the authorities we need to report it to, which is what happened in 2016.”

The Russians scanned all 50 states.

“That doesn’t mean they were hacked, it just means that the Russians tried to get into systems,” Wyman said. “It’s sort of like a burglar going around your house and checking the doorknobs and windows to try to get in.”

We all got into the business to administer elections, but every one of us has had to become an IT professional. I know more about servers and security protocols than I thought I ever wanted to

New legislation went into effect this year changing the way elections are conducted in Washington state. One big change is allowing same-day voter registration changes.

To cope with that, and to shore up cyber security, Wyman says the state is using something called “VoteWA.” It’s a $9.5 million system designed to let election officials in all 39 counties see information about state voters in almost real time. If someone moves from King County to Pierce County, both county election offices should see that and are able to make sure the person votes a proper ballot.

But VoteWA is not without its critics. At a hearing in late May, King County Elections chief Julie Wise told state lawmakers that implementing the system in a live election is “irresponsible,” and that the system was “not ready for prime time.” She cited outages that delayed dealing with a backlog of voter registration records.

The system was tested in Pierce, Whatcom, Clark and Benton counties before being implemented for the current election cycle. (Ballots are out now, and due Aug. 6 in this year’s primary.)

“Like any new technology some things are coming up that don’t work the way we expect them to, or want them to, and that’s part of what we’re doing is fine tuning that,” Wyman told KNKX. “Two counties out of 39 have been recently saying the system isn’t ready.”

Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall also raised concerns.

Wyman says her office has a security operations center staffed by IT professionals.

“Their responsibility is not only to keep our system here at the state safe, but to provide support with those medium and small-sized counties who might not have the robust IT support that they need in their individual counties,” she said. “And that’s just as important as keeping the entire state system up and running.”

And Wyman expects an overall voter turnout somewhere around 40 percent for the Aug. 6 primary.

“When you look historically at odd-year primary elections, those tend to be the elections that have the lowest turnout of the four-year cycle. It’s ironic because those elections determine who’s going to be on the ballot in November, and these are the offices arguably that affect our daily lives the most: school boards, city and town councils, fire commissioners, that type of office.”