The effects of voter suppression, fraud, hacking and social media on American elections have been in the news since 2016, but election officials have been thinking about cyber security for decades, Washington’s Secretary of State Kim Wyman told the Redmond Rotary on April 12.
Washington state elections were “unequivocally” not hacked, she said, but she is more worried about the “the downstream effect that it has on voters and confidence in democracy.”
“We believe as Americans in representative government,” she said. “We believe that the people holding these offices were chosen by the people.”
If elections are undermined, people can lose confidence in democracy, she said. One way to protect elections is to move away from electronic voting, she said. Washington is a vote-by-mail state that relies on paper ballots, which can be referenced during a close election or recount, Wyman said.
Wyman has been in charge of elections for 25 years, first in Thurston County before winning the election to become secretary of state in 2012.
Washington has low levels of voter suppression and voter fraud, but its election technology is still in need of an update, Wyman said. She has convened lawmakers over the past few years to work on an “election modernization project” for the state, which happened to coincide with the nationwide discussion about hacking.
Wyman said that her office started noticing suspicious activity in mid-summer 2016. But the “bad actors” didn’t get past the firewall.
“It’s kind of like a burglar walking around outside your house. They’re trying to open windows and checking doors,” she said. “I’m happy to tell you that they did that around our system, but they weren’t able to get in.”
Wyman also differentiated between voter registration and management systems, which were compromised, and tabulation systems, which are not connected to the Internet “for obvious reasons.”
In January 2017, then-President Barack Obama designated election systems as “critical infrastructure.” That has led to a lot more involvement in elections by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, Wyman said, and meant that Wyman and three members of her staff had to apply for security clearances to access classified intelligence about the hacking incidents.
Washington was one of 21 states that were targeted by Russian hackers, according to the Department of Homeland Security, but only the election systems in Illinois and Arizona were breached. Wyman said that the hackers did not download or change any information, but “they were able to get in, and that’s the scary part.”
State and local election officials are trying to work with the feds on a balance of security and access, she said, while trying to respond to concerns about election integrity.
“The strength of U.S. elections is transparency. The public, particularly in my state, wants to know, and needs to know,” she said.
The good news is that the role of hacking and social media in the 2016 election “got everyone’s attention,” Wyman said, and that Congress is working in a bipartisan manner to protect future elections. Lawmakers freed up almost $400 million to help pay for training, staff, cybersecurity upgrades and replacing aging voter equipment this year.
Washington will receive about $8 million, which “dovetails nicely” with the election modernization efforts, Wyman said.
“I think our state has done well on accessibility and it’s done well on security, but we’re always trying to improve it,” she said.
Other initiatives are also underway leading up to the 2018 elections. Last year, the state Legislature required more ballot drop boxes to be placed in counties, and the King County Council recently decided to push for pre-paid postage on ballots for the fall election. Wyman supports the initiative, but believes it should be statewide.
For more, see www.sos.wa.gov.