The day before county elections offices began mailing out more than 4.2 million ballots for the Nov. 6 election, state officials insisted Tuesday that Washington’s voting system was among the nation’s most secure.
Unlike some states that use electronic voting, Washington’s vote-by-mail system uses paper ballots that can be checked if any questions about results arise. The machines, which count the ballots, are not tied to the internet, making them safe from hackers. Additionally, the online registration system has firewalls and sensors in each county designed to detect suspicious activity, Secretary of State Kim Wyman said at a special news conference on election security.
Elections officials also have been working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Washington National Guard on cybersecurity, she said.
Washington is fortunate because its National Guard units have more people who work in the software industry than most other states, Gov. Jay Inslee said, making it “ground zero” for anti-hacking efforts.
Col. Ken Borchers, commander of the 252nd Cyberspace Operations Group, said the Guard has done two assessments of the system and will do a third before the general election.
“We find stuff all the time,” Borchers said, but the system is inherently safe and changes the group’s experts recommend are minor. “We’re not seeing all kinds of crazy threat activity.”
Washington isn’t a good target for threats because it doesn’t rely on electronic voting or machines tied to the internet, he added.
In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, the state did see some suspicious activity on its servers and reported it to the FBI that July, Wyman said. It was one of 21 states in which the Russians tried to access voter registration, but hackers did not get past the firewalls, she said.
Elections officials have practiced scenarios involving threats to the system and developed response plans, she said.
“We are seeing activity,” Wyman said. “So far, we’re not seeing anything that gives us any more pause than any other activity.”
The system also has protections to ensure results reported on election night can’t be hacked, said Julie Wise, King County elections director.
On Monday, a national elections expert said the main threats to the 2018 election involved hackers targeting voter registration systems and voting machines. But Marian Schneider, president of the Verified Voting Foundation, said they are risks, not certainties.
“You can never get the risks down to zero,” Schneider said.
Another possible target is the unofficial results that are reported on election night, she said. Although those can later be corrected when results are verified, the initial report of incorrect results can undermine confidence in the system.
Schneider suggested voters who can check their registration information online do so before the election to ensure it hasn’t been changed. Washington voters can do that by going to www.sos.wa.gov/elections and clicking on the My Vote icon in the upper-right corner.
Voters who find problems should report them to their local elections officials, and can call 1-866-OUR-VOTE for a national, nonpartisan coalition that can help fix problems, Schneider said.
“In almost every federal election, there are some problems, somewhere,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director for the Brennan Center for Justice Democracy Program.
But Washington and Oregon, which also cast ballots by mail, have developed good procedures for voting, Norden said. The most important thing in the end is “that you’re counting all the votes you should be counting,” he added.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.