CYBER24 Episode 5: Keeping Utah elections secure

Municipal elections don’t get the same amount of love from the general public as a presidential election or even an off-year election with a big Senate race. But for the team that oversees and executes the election process across Utah’s 29 counties, it’s still a very big day.

“I used to think that elections just happen but I can assure you they do not,” says Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is designated by the Utah Constitution as the chief elections officer. “It’s a one-time-a-year thing for everyone else, but for my office it is twenty-four-seven, 365 days a year.”

When Utahns head to the polls on Tuesday (or as many drop their ballot in the mail this week), they do so for the first time since the presidential election last year. With rumors and allegations still swirling about voter fraud and foreign election interference, this isn’t your typical Election Day.

“The elections [in our state] are secure,” says Cox. “We know there were hacking attempts made in other states but here in Utah we got a clean bill of health.“

Cox says there were not direct attempts made to hack the election in Utah, but the state is still working to make sure everything run smoothly and voters can have confidence in the process. One helpful development, he says, is that the federal government has placed a greater emphasis on security of elections, declaring elections to be part of “critical infrastructure.”

“This is how we give people awesome amounts of power,” he says. “Anytime you are giving people power there will be an incentive to do bad things and to try to get power without doing it the right way. So we always have that hanging over us.

We also live in an era of conspiracy theories so if your candidate doesn’t win it makes it much easier to blame it on something other than them being a candidate people didn’t support.”

And there’s good reason to remain vigilant. Each day, some 300 million attempts to penetrate Utah’s databases – including voter registration rolls – are blocked by state tech specialists. That number grew to over 750 million per day in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election.

Utah transitioned to electronic voting machines after watching the now infamous hanging chad election recount in Florida in 2000. The federal government appropriated money for states to transition to electronic voting machines.

Cox says Utah takes great precaution to prevent hacking, primarily by keeping machines offline. Voting machines themselves are never connected to the internet, are never connected to each other and each vote generates a hard copy, providing a paper trail of votes cast as a back-up.

“There has yet to be an electoral process devised that is completely, 100 percent foolproof,” says Cox. “There are bad people out there trying to do bad things, there’s always that possibility. So what we are doing is putting into place as many checks and balances as possible.”

More than fifteen years later, those machines are at the end of their lifecycle. Vote by mail is now more en vogue in Utah so the election is becoming less dependent on the electronic machines. And the lieutenant governor points out the most important element of our election security is the decentralized nature of the process.

“We don’t have statewide elections; we don’t have nationwide elections,” he says. “Every election is a county election – even a presidential election, even a gubernatorial election. It would be much easier to hack one centralized database, one federal election, but it’s a lot harder to hack 2,000 county elections.”

That’s good for security but it comes with some headaches for those overseeing the process in those counties. The state elections office provides some oversight to ensure the election in those counties are run correctly.

“On election night, things get crazy,” says Cox. “The interesting thing about elections is you only get one shot at this and you don’t get a lot of practice. We do run some models and we do some practice during the weeks leading up to this. We try to gameplan as much as possible, but at 8 o’clock at night we close the all the polling places and that data starts to get tabulated at the county level and uploaded to us. It gets a little fun on election night. “

Utah works with elections officials in other states and the federal government to learn best practices and implement them where applicable. Even among the 29 counties in Utah there are different systems for elections. Some vote exclusively by mail, a process that increases voter participation, but also creates challenges in securely storing ballots, counting them and auditing signatures on ballot envelopes to ensure they match signatures in databases.

Comfort with technology

Of course, there are some problems with any model. Stories ranging from accurate to urban myth tell of polling locations where votes were somehow cast by deceased people. Even low-tech operations are vulnerable as volunteer poll workers in low turnout districts could easily access to the voter rolls and stuff ballot boxes. To be clear, that hasn’t been an issue in Utah, but it begs the question: why are we more concerned about voter fraud in an electric system as opposed to the old fashioned way, that clearly wasn’t any more secure?

Cox says it has to do with comfort levels the voting population has with technology and that it may change as digital natives become a larger percentage of active voter totals.

“I hope so, I really do,” he says. “There’s nobody out there who would like to simplify this and make it more available to people than me. I wish I could vote on my phone. We have to solve that security piece first. I came into this job thinking Utah could be the first, we could figure out a way to do this. The more I studied and the more I talked to cybersecurity experts I realized, we’re just not there yet.”

That doesn’t mean we won’t get there. Blockchain technology, like that which is used as cryptocurrency, could eventually provide a secure way – more secure than the paper ballots, perhaps – to run an election.

Inherent conflict

There may be no way to strike the perfect balance in a system that demands both the sanctity of the secret ballot and the ability to audit the vote to ensure legitimacy of the election process.

“In order to cause doubt and chaos in an election you don’t have to hack an election,” says Cox. “All you have to do is say that you did. If we can’t prove otherwise then you’ve lost some degree of legitimacy.”

Stickers for everyone

No matter which process used to run an election, one important issue remains: how do county clerks make sure voters get their “I Voted” stickers.

“People demand their stickers,” says Cox. “We are trying to find a way to do that and asking counties to budget to send stickers with the ballots. “The people demand stickers.”


In this episode

  • iPhone X debuts among concerns about facial recognition technology

  • Are Utah elections secure? Conversation with Lt. Governor Spencer Cox (10:05)

  • Voting online – will it ever be a reality in Utah? (22:00)

  • Legal brief – What businesses need to know about cyber legal liability with Ray Quinney & Nebeker (32:12)