Nebraska’s elections officials say your ballot is secure. Here’s how they know

November 6, 2018

Nebraskans casting ballots Tuesday can find comfort in the flat, familiar feel of paper ballots.

Those paper ballots, and post-election audits of voters’ choices, remain the best defense against cybercriminals aiming to disrupt or change the results of American elections, say election security experts.

“Having an official ballot of record be a paper record is critical in improving voters’ confidence in elections,” said Tammy Patrick of the Democracy Fund. She is a former federal election compliance officer in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale’s office has seen no evidence of outside efforts to tamper with Nebraska’s voter registration rolls or Election Day results, said Wayne Bena, deputy secretary of state for elections.

But parts of every election system are vulnerable to outside interference, so election officials in Nebraska are taking no chances, say Bena and experts from independent groups that monitor election security nationally.

The state is working with private partners to prevent hackers from toying with voter registration databases and vote-tally-sharing websites. Included in that effort is a new 24/7 network monitoring device that flags unauthorized intrusions.

This device, known as an Albert monitor, will watch the computer system that collects registrations from the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles, the state online voter registration website and county election officials.

One of the private contractors working with the State of Nebraska is Omaha-based Election Systems & Software, which manufactures, services and supports voting machines and vote-counting machines in 42 states.

In 2016, the Omaha company and others working on elections saw nation states and cybercriminals access or try to access voter information, said Chris Wlaschin, vice president of systems security for ES&S. In Illinois, hackers reached voter data, but officials said they did not change anything.

This time, ES&S, which holds the contract for Nebraska’s voter registrations, worked with the Department of Homeland Security and the secretary of state to add the Albert monitoring device to the system’s network.

“The scanning activity that was reported in 2016, the efforts ... to try to compromise our critical infrastructure really was a wake-up call that we needed to up our game,” Wlaschin said of election security nationally.

The State of Nebraska already uses Albert monitors to protect the personal and financial information of Nebraskans who pay taxes and do business with the state, officials said.

The monitoring devices are being used to protect voter data in 36 states. They check in with a Center for Internet Security monitoring center in Albany, New York. Each can cost upward of $15,000.

The value of such monitoring is twofold, said Patrick, the election security expert. It communicates patterns to others monitoring Internet traffic, and it notifies election officials of where to watch for compromised systems.

The bulk of election security still rests with local and state election officials, who say they work to make sure election equipment is built and maintained to the highest standards and to keep tabs on registrations.

The state now makes counties use two-factor authentication to access its voter registration database.

Cameras monitor vote counting and storage, as do independent election monitors and, in some instances, visiting officials from the U.S. Department of Justice, said Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse.

Voting machines and vote-counting machines are never connected to the Internet, Wlaschin and Bena said, so adding additional security to voter rolls should prevent any registration-related shenanigans.

But, in the event of a registration mix-up, voters can request a provisional ballot. Fill it out, along with the accompanying voter registration form, and election officials say they will check records and see if they can count your vote.

“We want people to know their vote is secure and safe,” Kruse said. “And we want them to show up and vote.”

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