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A Look At The Security Of Voting Systems In The U.S. Ahead Of The Midterms

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to take a look now at the security of voting systems across the country and ask whether states have learned the lessons of 2016. The Boston Globe is out today with a story about threat reports from the Department of Homeland Security. These documents appear to show that hackers have targeted voter registration databases and election officials. Edgardo Cortes is the elections security adviser at the Brennan Center for Justice. And I asked him, how severe is the threat to election security in 2018?

EDGARDO CORTES: Well, I think, overall, you know, there's a persistent threat to our election process. I think what you're seeing out of that report is the increase in information sharing that has really taken place since 2016...

CHANG: OK.

CORTES: ...And the fact that we can now start to spot these things. We now have a mechanism for the states to share that information with each other and with the federal government so that, you know, there can be some analysis done about where the threat is coming from but also so that states can protect themselves.

CHANG: OK, well, it sounds like it's good news that state officials can spot these attempts. But how successful, for example, were these hackers?

CORTES: So we only at this point know of one successful attempt back in 2016 to extract data from a Illinois statewide voter registration system. But I'm not aware of and nobody has made any public reporting about any other potential successful breaches.

CHANG: What has changed since election 2016 when election security became such a front-and-center issue?

CORTES: I think the biggest thing is a recognition that this is a primary issue for election administrators, where prior to 2016, in most cases, cybersecurity was an afterthought to the other mechanics of running an election. And I think there has been a big change in how it's viewed and that this is a primary point of planning and resource allocation in terms of maintaining appropriate cybersecurity.

CHANG: But even as federal and state officials are paying closer attention to malicious intent from hackers out there, I mean, there's also the threat of just non-malicious intent. I mean, there's just technological glitches in the system. For example, in Texas during early voting, there were complaints that paperless voting machines were changing people's votes erroneously - say, a vote for Beto O'Rourke would suddenly become, by error, a vote for Ted Cruz. How widespread are threats like that - technological foul-ups?

CORTES: In terms of how widespread they are, unfortunately we don't know. We do know those sorts of issues happen, right? There are human errors that go into preparing technology, and then there are just - you know, technology just doesn't work sometimes. We've been promoting states transition away from that older equipment that's paperless, has no ability to audit and move to new systems that create a paper record that can then be audited after the election to confirm that votes were counted accurately.

CHANG: So how many states right now don't have the ability to audit the vote?

CORTES: So yeah - so tomorrow, there are five states - Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Delaware, New Jersey - that are using completely paperless systems in the election. And then there are counties and parts of about a dozen other states that are using paperless voting equipment. But about 80 percent of the country is going to be voting on a system tomorrow that uses - produces an independent paper record. So there's a lot of reassurance, I think, for voters heading into tomorrow's election. And we'll keep working on and the states are continuing to move towards getting to 100 percent of the country on that paper-based systems.

CHANG: Edgardo Cortes of the Brennan Center, thanks very much.

CORTES: Oh, absolutely. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.