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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Washington, Idaho elections can’t be hacked, officials say

The FBI is warning state officials to boost their election security in light of evidence that hackers targeted related data systems in two states.

Although Washington and Idaho officials received those warnings, they said the systems to count votes in both states are secure from computer hacking.

Ballots in both states are counted in the counties, not by a centralized system.

In Washington, state law says the machines in each county that tabulate ballots can’t be connected to the internet. In Idaho, ballots are counted in each county, and “16 of them are counted by hand, so it’s kind of hard to hack those,” Chief Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst said.

Earlier this month, Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson talked with secretaries of state about cybersecurity for elections systems. The FBI also warned all states to boost election security after two states shut down online voter registration systems that showed signs of hacking.

The FBI didn’t name the states that were targeted, but it described a “compromise” of one elections board website and “attempted intrusion activities” in another state’s system. State election websites in Illinois and Arizona experienced hack-related shutdowns earlier this summer. In both cases, the parts of the websites affected involved online voter registration.

“There’s always concern about” ballot security, said Stuart Holmes, election information systems supervisor for the Washington secretary of state’s office. But state laws and federal standards are designed to address those concerns. “To my knowledge, there’s no instance a ‘bad actor’ got into the system,” Holmes said.

In Washington, the machines that tabulate ballots must be in secure areas with limited access, and are tested for accuracy before and after ballots are counted. Results are taken out of the secured areas and entered into a separate computer that relays them to state election officials.

The last known case of ballot tampering in Spokane County was in 1999, when a high number of absentee ballots were punched both yes and no on a state initiative, leading investigators to believe a temporary worker had used a sharp object to alter them. Pushing through the “yes” slot in a stack of punch-card ballots would not alter those marked in favor, but those originally marked “no” wouldn’t be counted for either side.

County officials tightened security for the area where ballots were stored in the county courthouse, and the elections office later moved to a new facility.

After the 2004 general election, which resulted in two recounts in the close governor’s race, Washington did away with punch-card ballots and eventually went to all-mail voting. Paper ballots are kept after they are scanned to verify results if any challenges are filed.

Washington has had online registration for years, and has had a private security firm review the system, said Brian Zylstra, a spokesman for the secretary of state. But while it is possible for the public, candidates and political parties to get information on voters with a public records request, only a few authorized individuals have access to get into the system to make changes.

Idaho has authorized online voter registration, but that system won’t be up until after the November election. When it is, Hurst said, Idaho will look at what other states are doing and won’t allow direct online access to that system. A series of validation steps would be required.

Federal officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility that hackers, particularly those working for Russia or another country, could breach U.S. elections systems and wreak havoc on the November presidential election.

Some experts, along with Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign, believe that Russia was behind the embarrassing email hack of the Democratic National Committee right before its national convention last month. The hacked emails showed an apparent lack of neutrality in the primary race between Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with some party officials disparaging Sanders.

Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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