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States Dispute ‘Rigged Election’ Claims, Cite Focus on Security

  • Officials raise concerns of intimidation at polling places
  • States readying cybersecurity to thwart hacking attacks

State election officials and cybersecurity experts disputed claims that the U.S. presidential election will be “rigged,” while acknowledging there are legitimate concerns about hacking and voter intimidation.

Rumors around this year’s election -- including worries that voting machines could be manipulated to change a vote from one candidate to another -- have flooded phone lines, Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler said in Washington Thursday. Edgardo Cortes, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, said the distractions mean that “not enough attention has been paid to security in the elections process.”

“We have never seen the amount of calls” his office is getting now, Schedler, a Republican, said. “Unfortunately, most people we are responding to, it makes no difference what you show them to debunk the theory. They don’t believe it.”

The two officials and representatives from other states and independent groups discussed real and imagined threats to the Nov. 8 election at separate events on the issue in Washington. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, behind in most national polls, has warned that the election is rigged and is encouraging his supporters to watch out for voter fraud in cities such as St. Louis and Philadelphia, which have substantial black populations.

For a QuickTake Q&A on Trump’s ‘Rigged’ Warnings, click here

Such fears, the officials said, are taking away from what they see as potentially more legitimate concerns, such as cybersecurity. While most voting machines aren’t even connected to the internet, systems such as those that track voter registration are.

“Unfortunately, the timing of that discussion really has fed into all the fears that are out there about the security of the election,” Cortes, appointed by Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, said. “It’s not that we’re not confident in the ability to conduct the election. It’s just remaining vigilant and looking at how to improve those processes.”

To help ensure the integrity of the vote, Virginia is prepared for a major “distributed denial of service” hacking attack that would make websites with voting information unavailable, Cortes said. Websites that might be crippled would direct people to other sites that work. The state brought in its National Guard’s cyber unit to check election systems for the first time as well, Cortes said in an interview.

There’s no centralized national voting system for hackers to tamper with, said Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Instead, local polling places around the country report their results to counties, which in turn report to their states, creating a system of checks and balances that would identify voting problems, Potter said.

‘Threat to Democracy’

“I can’t think of a greater threat to a democracy than suggesting somehow either that the numbers can be cooked or that the system can simply be disrupted, which I think is the greater threat, so that people cannot successfully vote,” Potter said.

In New Jersey, state technology experts have spent the past couple of months testing all systems and databases involved in the electoral process and updating software, according to Dave Weinstein, the state’s chief technology officer. Weinstein, who previously worked at U.S. Cyber Command, will join about a dozen cyberthreat intelligence analysts and security engineers at a state center on Election Day. For now, they’re working overtime up until the election, as states face a “more heightened threat landscape,” he said.

“From here on out, we have all hands on deck,” Weinstein added in a phone interview. “The cyber cell is fully staffed and monitoring not just what’s happening on the election side, but the entire state network.”

Voter Intimidation

There are reasons to be concerned about voter intimidation, said Susannah Goodman, director of voting integrity at Common Cause. Some examples already have been reported to an election protection hotline, she said.

“In early voting, we’ve already seen behavior which is intimidating to voters, where people are coming and they’re filming and they’re taking down license plates,” Goodman said. “What we are concerned about is the impact of people who are going to be observing being a force of intimidation for voters.”

Some states are beefing up both physical and cybersecurity. West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a Democrat, said voters are on the front lines and should report issues such as intimidation to the state’s 9,000 poll workers on Election Day and not take matters “into your own hands.”

“Even with all the security that we already have had in place, we have even more security that can’t be discussed,” she said during a speech in Washington Thursday. “We’re never too careful in that realm.”