Across the Country, Election Officials Search for Ways to Keep Up With Security Threats

New York election officials are asking for $27 million to bolster security.

by Matthew Hamilton, Times Union / November 29, 2017
Election workers counting paper ballots. (AP/M. Spencer Green)

(TNS) –– ALBANY – The advent of new voting technology has brought election-security threats that state officials are seeking to shore up with additional resources.

At an Assembly hearing in Manahttan Tuesday, state Board of Elections officials said they would be seeking $27 million for the upcoming fiscal year — nearly $15.5 million more than the current year — to help enhance security as well as update the state voter registration and campaign finance systems.

Election officials said at a similar hearing last year that the state's three-tiered election systems are unlikely to be hacked, but they remain wary of threats.

"We know we're defending, but we don't know what we're defending against or what exact part they're going to go (after)," state BOE Co-Executive Director Todd Valentine said.

Even if state systems generally are solid, 57 counties and New York City all have their own IT systems that must be protected at the local level. Local systems aren't broken out by department either, which is to say that a county board of elections may not be treated as a separate entity for IT purposes.

As such, a malware attack on Schuyler County IT systems shortly before the September primary elections also affected the county Board of Elections and other county operations. Schoharie County also had hackers "knocking on the firewall" last year, county IT Director Scott Haverly said at the hearing.

The emergence of cyber threats to government agencies in general comes as voting and technology have become intertwined. While New York still uses paper ballots that must be marked with a pen, the ballots are fed into electronic scanning machines.

Other states have taken technological advances further, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Missouri and North Dakota allow some voters to cast their votes using a web-based portal. In Alaska, the online voting is available for any voter, while the other states allow members of the military and citizens overseas to vote through web portals. Another 21 states and the District of columbia also allow similar voters to return ballots via email.

But New York isn't moving toward online voting soon.

"Banks suffer substantial losses from computer fraud, which they must absorb as a cost of doing business. Furthermore, when there's electronic bank fraud, the money is missing and the victimized party can report the loss," State Board of Elections Co-Chair Doug Kellner said. "But when a vote is stolen electronically, because of the need to preserve voter secrecy, there's no way to learn that the vote was actually stolen."

©2017 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.