Saturday October 20th, 2018 5:29AM

Local voting districts seen as crucial to election security

By The Associated Press

CONYERS, Ga. (AP) — Last November, election officials in a small Rhode Island town were immediately suspicious when results showed 99 percent of voters had turned down a noncontroversial measure about septic systems.

It turned out that an oval on the electronic ballot was misaligned ever so slightly and had thrown off the tally. The measure actually had passed by a comfortable margin.

The scary part: The outcome might never have raised suspicion had the results not been so lopsided.

Amid evidence that Russian hackers may have tried to meddle with last year's presidential election, the incident illustrates a central concern among voting experts — the huge security challenge posed by the nation's 10,000 voting jurisdictions.

While the decentralized nature of U.S. elections is a buffer against large-scale interstate manipulation on a level that could sway a presidential race, it also presents a multitude of opportunities for someone bent on mischief.

With a major election year on the horizon, the Homeland Security Department has been working with states and counties to shore up their election systems against tampering.

States vary widely in what they are doing to tighten security. Colorado and Rhode Island have adopted more rigorous statistical methods for double-checking the votes, while others are making or weighing changes to their voting technology.

"Always, there's been a hypothetical. But clearly, now it is a real threat," said Noah Praetz, election director for Cook County, Illinois. "The fact that we now have to defend against nation-state actors — Russia, China, Iran. It's a very different ballgame now."

Last year, Homeland Security disclosed that 21 states' election systems had been targeted by Russian hackers. There was no evidence they actually penetrated the systems. Experts likened the activity to a burglar jiggling a doorknob to see if it is locked.

In the U.S. — from presidential races down to school board contests — elections are run to a very large degree by local governments, usually counties. County election offices across the nation oversee some 109,000 polling places and more than 694,000 poll workers, and rely on a patchwork of voting technology, such as optical scanners and touchscreens.

Small counties are less likely than the larger and wealthier ones to have cybersecurity expertise and the latest technology.

"The proverb that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is certainly applicable to our efforts to secure elections," Brian Hancock, director of the testing and certification division for the U.S. Election Assistance Administration, said in a blog on his agency's website.

After the "hanging chad" debacle in Florida threw the 2000 presidential election into confusion, Congress designated $3 billion to help states modernize their election systems.

But those machines are now more than 10 years old. A 2015 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that more than 40 states were using machines that were no longer being manufactured, and some election officials had to go onto eBay to find replacement parts, including modems to connect to the Internet.

In September, Virginia banned touchscreen voting machines in next week's closely watched gubernatorial election because of security concerns. Several counties had to scramble to buy replacements.

Georgia, one of five states where voting machines produce no paper trails, is testing out new ones during municipal elections in Conyers, an Atlanta suburb. Voters enter their choices electronically and are then given a paper copy. If the paper looks correct to them, they feed it into a machine that counts their vote.

"This is a wonderful step forward," said James Cabe, a 37-year-old college instructor from Conyers. "I like looking at a piece of paper and verifying that it's the vote I cast."

Georgia officials have estimated it could cost over $100 million to adopt the machines statewide.

In January, Homeland Security designated the nation's election systems "critical infrastructure," on par with the electrical grid and water supply.

A 27-member council has been formed with representatives from federal, state and local governments. The group held its first meeting last month in Atlanta, and a key priority is establishing a process for sharing intelligence.

"It would take a substantial effort to impact our elections, and one that we think is very hard to do," said Bob Kolasky, the acting deputy undersecretary at Homeland Security overseeing the program. "And we are going to make it harder to do."

One step is to provide security clearance to a top election official in each state. So far, 23 states have signed up. The department also has been working with 30 states and 31 local governments to scan their networks for vulnerabilities and provide cybersecurity recommendations.

That's welcome news in places like the Rhode Island town of North Kingstown, population 22,000.

As the polls closed there last fall, Town Clerk Jeannette Alyward checked the state's election night website: Only five people had voted to create a $2 million loan program for septic systems.

Something had to be wrong. By the next day, state officials figured out the ballots weren't being read properly by the machinery because of the bad oval. It was nothing intentional, but it was unsettling — and became more so amid continuing news about Russian hacking.

"I have a lot of confidence in our state system, but could it happen here?" Aylward asked. "Anything could happen."


Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter at .

  • Associated Categories: Homepage, U.S. News, Local/State News, Politics, Georgia News, Associated Press (AP), AP National News, AP Online National News, Top U.S. News short headlines, Top General short headlines, AP Elections, General Presidential Election News, AP Business, AP Online - Georgia News, AP Online Headlines - Georgia News
© Copyright 2018
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Congressional leaders call for sexual harassment training
Congressional leaders push for sexual harassment training in Congress as women legislators come forward with stories of harassment in the House
9:48AM ( 2 minutes ago )
Latest JFK files say no evidence found of CIA link to Oswald
Newly released government documents on John F. Kennedy's assassination say allegations that Lee Harvey Oswald was connected to the CIA were "totally unfounded."
9:34AM ( 15 minutes ago )
Lebanese prime minister resigns amid tensions with Hezbollah
Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri has announced he is resigning in a surprise move following a trip to Saudi Arabia
8:50AM ( 59 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
Sessions gets more criticism from Trump, Russia questions
Sessions gets another lashing from Trump amid more questions about Russia probe
2:29AM ( 7 hours ago )
The Latest: Ex-Catalan leader OK with Belgian justice
Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont says he is ready to run for re-election in December and would be prepared to run his campaign from Belgium, where he is in hiding
1:59PM ( 19 hours ago )
Virginia, New Jersey governor's races shaped by age of Trump
Virginia, New Jersey governor's races shaped by the age of Trump, with final effect unclear in final sprint to Election Tuesday
12:58PM ( 20 hours ago )
AP Elections
Russia hackers pursued Putin foes, not just US Democrats
The hackers who sowed havoc in the final stage of America's presidential contest had global ambitions that went well beyond Hillary Clinton's campaign
5:56PM ( 1 day ago )
The Latest: GOP tax plan favors businesses over individuals
A budget watchdog group has crunched the numbers on the House GOP tax plan and has found that the bulk of the tax cuts go to businesses instead of individuals
5:26PM ( 1 day ago )
The Latest: Trump kisses Republican tax plan
President Donald Trump has planted a kiss on a symbol of the House Republican tax plan
3:26PM ( 1 day ago )
General Presidential Election News
Crashed Russian helicopter raised from its Arctic seabed
A Russian helicopter that crashed off the Svalbard archipelago with eight people onboard last month has been raised from the seabed
7:23AM ( 2 hours ago )
North Korea, trade, golf on Trump's agenda in Japan
North Korea, trade, golf: A look at what's on tap for Trump in Japan
2:58AM ( 6 hours ago )
Netflix says no more Kevin Spacey on 'House of Cards'
Netflix said Friday night that Kevin Spacey will no longer be a part of "House of Cards," and that it's cutting all ties with the actor after a series of allegations of sexual harassment and assault
12:08AM ( 9 hours ago )
AP Business
Gas prices decreasing in Georgia
The average gas price in Georgia has decreased more than 30 cents over the past month.
7:50AM ( 2 weeks ago )
Collapsed interstate bridge in Georgia reopens to traffic
A key section of interstate highway through Atlanta has partially reopened, six weeks after a highway bridge collapsed because of a large fire.
7:41PM ( 5 months ago )
Cagle promises 500,000 new jobs in Georgia governor campaign
Casey Cagle will launch his campaign for governor on Sunday with a pledge to add half a million new jobs in Georgia in four years if voters choose him to replace term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal.
12:11PM ( 6 months ago )
AP Online - Georgia News
Latest JFK files say no evidence found of CIA link to Oswald
Newly released government documents on John F. Kennedy's assassination say allegations that Lee Harvey Oswald was connected to the CIA were "totally unfounded."
9:34AM ( 16 minutes ago )
Iran displays missile during anniversary of embassy takeover
Iran displays surface-to-surface missile as part of events marking anniversary of 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis
7:59AM ( 1 hour ago )
"Mission Impossible" to shoot at famed Norway tourist site
Technical equipment to shoot "Mission: Impossible 6" is being helicoptered in to southern Norway's most famous tourist attraction _ closing it off temporarily for visitors
7:45AM ( 2 hours ago )
The Latest: Puigdemont urges Catalan separatists to unite
Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has urged all political parties in Catalonia in favor of secession from Spain to join in a coalition for the region's Dec. 21 election
7:34AM ( 2 hours ago )
Slow the sands of time Sunday, standard time returning again
Slow the sands of time, reverse the second hand, pause the pendulum _ standard time is returning again
7:26AM ( 2 hours ago )