Democratic lawmakers are renewing calls for uniform election security ahead of the next presidential election, but until then, each state is on its own.
All 50 states were targeted by Russia in 2016, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee. In Illinois, 76,000 people had their information stolen off the state voter registration database.
Now, state election officials are working to bolster security, but they can’t guarantee all the systems are hack-proof.
WBEZ’s Melba Lara spoke with Charles Scholz, who chairs the Illinois State Board of Elections.
On the hack on Illinois during the presidential election in 2016
Scholz: In 2016, we had implemented something called the Paperless Online Voting Application and that was how the Russians got in. We know it was the Russians. In fact, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted a GRU colonel for the Illinois hack that occured back in July of '16. Seventy-six thousand people had the information that’s in the voter files [hacked], which is the information that any candidate gets. That’s how candidates run — they know who their voters are, what their voter history was. So those folks [who were hacked] all got a letter, [and] we told them if there was any indication of identity theft to contact us and the Illinois attorney general, and nobody has. So as far as motive, we can only assume it was to create a lack of credibility in our system to try to undermine our fair and free elections.
On what the Illinois State Board of Elections is doing to bolster security
Scholz: We’ve received $13.2 million in the Help America Vote Act — that’s from the federal government — and some of that went straight to the local election authorities. But at the State Board, we created something called the cybernavigator program and that’s being looked at as a model nationally. We have nine “cyber-navigators.” We’ve divided the state into regions and [the cyber-navigators] have met with all 108 election authorities so all 108 are on board. [The jurisdictions] all had a risk assessment now, so the next challenge for us — and some of that money will go to — trying to bring them up to where they need to be and address the problems that we got through the risk assessment. It’s a collaborative enterprise here: We’ve got the State Department of Innovation and Technology and the State Terrorism Information Center [working with us]. We actually have a State Board of Elections employee in the Terrorism Information Center. And In 2018, we utilized the National Guard, and we’re gonna do that again in 2020.
On using paper ballots and paper backups
Scholz: We don’t have paper ballots in all 108 jurisdictions, but we do have a paper backup. There are counties where you vote on a screen [and then you get] something called a DRE, which looks kind of like a receipt — it comes out the side of the machine. It is paper, it is printed out and it is kept, so we can say, in Illinois anyway, we have a paper backup for every vote.
On whether Illinois is currently being attacked
Scholz: We are currently being attacked and we’re successfully managing to defend against those attacks, but it is ongoing and that’s why we have to be absolutely vigilant and never let up on all of our cybersecurity efforts. It’s constantly changing and the threat is there.
On whether he can guarantee Illinois’ systems are hack-proof
Scholz: I can’t 100% guarantee that [the Russians] won’t be able to hack in like they did in 2016. We don’t think so — we’ve got every firewall that’s available to us. But in terms of actual conduct of the election and the tabulation of votes, yes. There’s an impenetrable system at this point that’s not gonna be available to anybody to change the tabulation and alter the result.
On how the federal government has helped
Scholz: First of all, we appreciated the money that Congress appropriated. Secondly, we have an excellent relationship with the Department of Homeland Security. They have been our partners in this process, so I would say that if you talked to any of our experts at the State Board they’re happy with the cooperation from the Department of Homeland. In terms of funding, eventually we’re gonna need $175 million to replace all of the voting equipment. Most of the voting equipment is [from] 2005 and back then, cybersecurity was not top of mind. But until the Election Assistance Commission, which is a federal agency, certifies the next generation of [hack] proof machines, we’re not really ready for that $175 million. That’s in the works — perhaps in the next year — and then of course the manufacturers will have to come up to those standards.
On voter confidence in the integrity of Illinois systems
Scholz: It’s very important that we tell people that we’re working to ensure that their vote is safe. Beyond that, we can’t police the social media out there — the disinformation campaigns — other than we’ll be very vigilant if it relates to the actual conduct of the election. In other words, if someone — and this has happened in the past — puts out information [like], ‘This is how you vote online,’ our public relations people would say, ‘No. You cannot vote online. There is no procedure to vote online. Don’t fall for that.’
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. Alyssa Edes produced this story for broadcast. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.