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Officials work to protect voter ballots in primaries, 2018 midterms

August 7, 2018

Four states hold primaries on Tuesday in several high-profile elections, and in one of them Washington Russian hackers in 2016 scanned voter-registration systems looking for weak spots, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

As the U.S. continues to prepare for November’s midterm vote, with every House seat up for grabs, along with a third of the Senate and many state and local contests, debate continues to rage in the nation’s capital over whether enough has been done to prevent another 2016 meddling effort by Russia, which probed at least 21 state election systems the last time around.

In addition to Washington, voters head to the polls Tuesday to cast primary ballots in Missouri, Michigan and Kansas.

Officials in the Northwest corner of the continental U.S. say they’ve addressed numerous issues in their bid to keep the Kremlin out of their voting booths, but admit significant worries remain, especially the biggest picture concern of all that citizens lose confidence in the entire concept of voting.

“The frightening thing for me is that there are those that are trying to undermine democracy at its foundation,” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said last month. “That if they can cast doubt on the outcome of an election people start to lose confidence in our election system.”

Ms. Wyman addressed those remarks to the National Association of Secretaries of State in Philadelphia during a discussion about election cybersecurity “best practices.”

To shore up their voter-registration rolls, vote-tabulation systems and election procedures, Washington says it has moved quickly to tap $380 million that Congress allocated earlier this year for upgrades intended to prevent hacking.

According to the federal Election Assistance Commission, the agency overseeing the process, at least 24 states are now accessing the cash after agreeing to provide a 5 percent match and submitting spending plans.

“That number may be larger,” EAC grant director Mark Abbott said at a recent Congressional hearing. “Some states are deploying funds but did not specify in their plan what years the funds will be used.”

In Washington, $8 million in federal grants is now in use, according to its secretary of state’s office, to train and equipment election officials to strengthen cybersecurity monitoring and firewalls across the state.

Washington has mail-in balloting, which means a paper record exists for almost every vote cast and allows for a hand recount if needed. Election security experts have argued for paper records to be the norm across the country.

But Washington still experienced a recent major glitch when officials announced a motor-voter program had prevented about 7,000 people from registering to vote. The people affected were mostly women who changed their names on their driver’s licenses and received new driver’s license numbers, according to the secretary of state.

Other issues they say they’re closely monitoring include hackers targeting votes emailed from Washingtonians serving overseas in the military.

Ms. Wyman’s office has also partnered with Washington Air National Guard cybersecurity experts, led by Col. Gent Welsh, commander of the Guard’s 194th Wing, which contains a dedicated “cyber squadron” that has worked with the Department of Defense.

Col. Welsh has been quoted as telling Seattle media that several of the squad members have day jobs with Microsoft, Amazon or IT security firms and provide a critical added layer of expertise.

“If you’ve got a military-grade adversary,” said Col. Welsh, “it makes sense to bring in military-grade assets.”

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