As Coloradans cast their ballots in the June 26 primaries and the nation heads into the November 2018 elections, Colorado voters can breath a sigh of relief that not only will their votes count, but election tampering by any entity, foreign or domestic, is practically impossible in Colorado.
“Colorado has the safest ballot process in the nation,” said Chaffee County Clerk and Recorder Lori Mitchell, who is also president of the Colorado County Clerks Association. “We’re showing the other states how it’s done.”
In fact, said Mitchell, Colorado has done virtually everything that election experts recommend to prevent a repeat of 2016, when Russian hackers, as part of a Russian government-sponsored attack targeting U.S. elections, attempted to hack voter registration files and public election sites. They managed to gain access to voter records in 21 states but not Colorado.
Mitchell said there’s a good reason why. Colorado’s voting process is not linked to the internet, making cyber attacks unlikely. “The state records every vote on a paper ballot and the state conducts rigorous post-election audits – the kind the vote researchers like.
“The Secretary of State’s office conducts what is called a risk-limiting audit at county level, meaning they say, ‘we are checking on the vote of this ballot number,’ and we look up the ballot and verify the state’s record with the paper ballot. The name and the vote has to check out. It’s comprehensive enough to protect against cyber attacks. You can’t get more accurate than that.”
More than half of all states require post-election audits, but only Colorado, Rhode Island and New Mexico conduct the risk-limiting audits.
Colorado has invested significantly in the voting process. Mitchell says nearly every one of the state’s 64 counties has up-to-date voting machines (Chaffee County had its new voting machines well ahead of the 2016 election for testing and training). Every election official takes part in security training, the state conducts risk assessments, and IT workers test computer networks for weaknesses.
Discussing measures taken to ensure the safety of the Colorado voting process results, Secretary of State Wayne Williams said once the extent of Russia’s digital campaign in the presidential election became clear, he made it a priority to invest more in security measures.
“If people perceive a risk, they’re less likely to participate in voting,” Williams said. “We want to protect people from that threat, and we want people to perceive that they are protected from that.”
Before the Russian interference, it was generally understood that the dispersed U.S. voting process, where each state and territory is in charge of its own elections, offers high protection against vote tampering. This remains a bulwark of free elections, reiterated in late May by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee while investigating Russia’s interference.
The Intelligence Committee released a report affirming that states should remain the main entities running elections, but lawmakers added concerns about potential vulnerabilities due to state-to-state inconsistencies in election infrastructure, including outdated voting machines.
Some 13 states use voting machines that don’t have paper records as a backup. Pennsylvania hasn’t found the funds to replace its outdated, hack-able voting machines. Five states – Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina – use electronic voting machines without a paper audit trail. In other words, after the electronic vote is cast, there is no way to check whether the vote recorded is the vote intended by the voter.
Furthermore, the use of such equipment and outdated software increases the odds that it will be targeted by cyber attacks, and many states have not reviewed or adjusted their security practices.
“These aren’t things we have to worry about here in Colorado,” said Mitchell. “If there was a disaster, we can recover the vote.”
States whose voting equipment programs were attacked
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a report in May 2018 stating that 21 states were affected by the election hack but refrained from listing the states. Based on reporting by The Washington Post, Associated Press and other news outlets plus statements issued by state officials, The Fix assembled the list of states below that were breached, sort-of breached or targeted.