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Six Things You Need To Know About Election Security In Utah — And What Officials Are Doing About It

Photo of state elections officials.
Nicole Nixon / KUER
Utah Elections Director Justin Lee, Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox and Director of Election Systems Mark Mitchell address reporters about cybersecurity measures. Oct. 2, 2018

Utah’s top election officials say they have been shoring up security systems ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm, but are still “nervous” about potential attacks leading up to election night.

“We prepare for the worst and then hope Election Day is very quiet,” said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. “If things work out, you’ll never even know we’ve done anything.”

Here’s what Cox and his election staff are doing to ensure a secure election in this year’s midterms:

1. The state is spending millions to strengthen election security.

Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature allocated $4.5 million to help the state upgrade its voting equipment. Utah also received an additional $4 million from Congress as part of a nationwide $380 million election security package. Utah’s election officials have used most of that money to buy new voting machines, upgrade the voter registration database and conduct trainings with county clerks. Not all of the money has been spent yet, said state Elections Director Justin Lee, “but we've got plans to spend all of it in the next few years.”

2. Utah was not specifically targeted by foreign hackers in 2016, but state systems face millions of attacks every day.

The state’s election systems have never been breached, Cox said, though all state websites and systems are regularly targeted — hundreds of millions of times per day. “Our state systems are under constant attack” from Russia, China and other hackers, said Cox. The state election chief credits the work of his predecessors and staff. “Election security has always been a priority here in the state of Utah,” he said.

Utah’s election office also enlisted the help of the federal government earlier this year to test its security systems. More on that below.

3. All Utah ballots have a paper trail.

Experts say paper ballots, which leave a paper trail to reference, are the most secure way to vote. Most counties in Utah – with the exception of Carbon and Emery counties – are conducting this year’s midterms primarily through mail. Cox estimates 90 percent of Utah ballots will be submitted by mail this election. Votes cast in-person are first filled out on a paper ballot, which is then submitted into a voting machine. “If something does go wrong,” Cox said, “we can always count by hand.”

4. The state is helping with voter issues in San Juan County.

San Juan County, located in southeastern Utah, has been plagued by accusations of racial gerrymandering and disenfranchising Native American voters. Lee said his office has been working with the county to pinpoint voters' addresses using geographic mapping technology to ensure they receive correct ballots. And for the first time, Lee said this year a state election staffer will be stationed in San Juan County on election day. “We're concerned enough about what's going on and want to make sure things are working right,” he said.

5. Mitt Romney’s Senate bid has not had a discernible impact on hacking attempts.

Romney, a former two-time presidential candidate who has criticized Russia in the past, is running for the Senate seat currently held by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch. “We knew that that alone might make us more of a target,” Cox said of Romney’s candidacy. But so far, Cox said Romney running for office again has not had a direct impact on hacking attempts fended off by the state. Romney has, however, been the target of attacks from Kremlin-linked Twitter accounts.

6. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has probed Utah’s election systems looking for weaknesses.

The federal department, which has responsibility for ensuring cybersecurity, has conducted several rounds of so-called “penetration tests” to search for weak spots in Utah’s online systems, such as the voter registration database. “The good news is that we have gotten probably the cleanest bill of health I think of any state in the nation,” Cox said. “That being said, they were able to find a couple of very small vulnerabilities” which the lieutenant governor said his office was able to patch.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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