Is Your Midterm Vote Safe?

(Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash)

Wednesday, Oct. 3 at 4:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Despite widespread concern about foreign cyberattacks on U.S. elections, two senators and a panel of state officials said at an elections security summit Wednesday that states are well-prepared for the 2018 midterms.

Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and election officials from Alabama, Wisconsin, and Washington state spoke at the U.S. Election Action Commission Election Readiness Summit about the challenges of getting all 50 states, each with their own unique voting systems, to work effectively with the federal government to safeguard elections.

They said despite Congress’ recent inability to beef up existing protections, the $380 million they’ve given states to fight election hacking last spring is being used effectively. “Everything that Senator Klobuchar and I would like to see happen by statute is basically happening,” said Blunt.

Blunt and Klobuchar’s recent bill mandating nationwide election safety measures and post-election audits was abruptly halted in August. Republican support for the bill waned following complaints from state attorneys general that the safety measures would be too costly for states, and would give the federal government too much oversight. Some observers have speculated whether the Trump Administration helped stall the bill.

Regardless of why the bill is not moving, Blunt said his focus was on the future. “We are not going to get anything in law between now and election day,” he said, “which probably makes it even more important that we immediately look back at this election and say, ‘okay, what happened that should not have happened?’”

Comments from the state officials at the summit mirrored Republican lawmakers’ concerns. Kim Wyman, secretary of state for the state of Washington said that, at first, the federal government’s involvement in her state’s elections “felt like an arranged marriage.” The Department of Homeland Security designated elections as “critical infrastructure,” the same category that gives the federal government oversight of the power grid and financial systems, after U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed Russia tried hacking the 2016 presidential election.

But Wyman said her initial resistance to DHS involvement soon vanished. “Secretary [Kirjsten] Nielsen has done an outstanding job of listening to officials across the country, from secretaries of state all of way down. And those partnerships are really positive now.”

While critics claim that the wide array of voting methods used across states makes the U.S. more vulnerable to cyberattack, Wyman said that her state’s ability to use a unique vote-by-mail system safeguards their elections. “You have less people who are actually administering the elections,” she said of the system, and because they don’t rely on a wider electronic network, “we have more ability to control those access points that bad actors would have.”

A July report by Democrats on the House Administration Committee  singled out 18 states that have either electronic-only systems, limited post-election audits, or both. Only one of the 18 states, Wisconsin, was represented at the summit.

Meghan Wolfe of the Wisconsin Elections Commission said they are increasing equipment audits before the November midterms, and plan to reimburse local officials for the new workload. She did not say whether these measures were in response to the House Democrat report, which also criticized House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for enabling “Republican inaction on election security,” by not holding more congressional hearings on foreign cyberattacks.

Sen. Klobuchar’s comments were more dire than Sen. Blunt’s. In July, two of the three largest voting machine companies skipped a Senate Rules Committee hearing she held to question their practice of not providing paper backups for electronic voting records.

“I kind of have an adverse reaction when people call it ‘meddling’ in our election,” she said. “That’s what I do when I call my daughter on a Saturday night and ask her what she’s doing. This is much more of an organized cyberattack, and while the focus has been on Russia, because of 2016, it could easily be another country or another criminal organization, and we have to take this seriously.”

She said a new version of her and Blunt’s bill will be ready soon, and that she hopes it will pass during the upcoming lame duck session. “People that want to delay it or stall it beyond that,” she said, “well, that’s up to you. Because then we’ll have a new Congress.”

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