After Russian Hack in 2016, Election Authorities Prepare for Midterms

NBC 5 sent all 108 local jurisdictions a brief survey to gauge readiness ahead of next month’s mid-term elections

In Illinois, a majority of voting machines need upgrading and more than 58 percent of local elections jurisdictions said they did not feel they had the resources to adequately secure their voting systems, according to a survey conducted by NBC 5 Investigates. 

NBC 5 sent all 108 local jurisdictions a brief survey to gauge readiness ahead of next month’s mid-term elections. Of the half that responded, despite challenges, 94 percent said they felt well-prepared from a cyber-security standpoint. 

It’s an important distinction following the 2016 hack of the state-run voter registration database. 

Months before the 2016 presidential election, the Illinois State Board of Elections suffered a stunning breach. The personal information of 76,000 voters, including names, birth dates, driver’s license numbers, and in some cases, the last four digits of social security numbers, were viewed by cyber criminals. 

The main culprit: Russia. 

“It was basically like having a really good home security system, but you leave a window wide open and someone comes in,” said Matt Dietrich, public information officer at the State Board of Elections. 

The SBE noticed the error and patched it right away. Investigators said the hackers deployed what’s called an “SQL Injection,” which is commonly used to attack databases. 

SBE officials emphasize the breach only affected the voter registration database. No vote tallies were changed, according to investigators. 

Illinois’ voting machines, while dated, are not connected to the internet and all come with a backup paper ballots, which makes vote manipulating very difficult, experts said. 

Still, election officials are not taking chances ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections and beyond. 

In the wake of U.S. Intelligence’s announcement of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, the federal government earmarked $380 million in grants to state elections. Illinois’ piece of the pie, with a small state match, is about $14 million to be used to shore up election security and other upgrades. 

It’s not enough money for needed upgrades, such as replacing aging voting equipment, but it’s a start, according to SBE IT Director Matt Emmons. 

“If we were working with a bigger pot, we’ve identified a lot more things that we could potentially do,” said Emmons. 

For now, the State Board of Elections is focusing on implementing the Illinois Century Network, a statewide internet service provider whose goal is to provide technical protections to all 108 local jurisdictions. SBE is also planning to roll out its “Cyber Navigator Program,” a group of nine experts who will travel the state to train local officials. 

“You have jurisdictions like Cook County and Chicago, which obviously have a much greater capacity than other counties which maybe have 6,000 people in them,” said Emmons. “The directive of the program is to provide equal support to all these jurisdictions.”

Even with additional training, some counties are finding it difficult to implement security upgrades without more resources, according to NBC 5’s anonymous survey. 

“Our county does not have the money,” one respondent wrote. 

Despite improvements to cyber-security and infrastructure, there is one threat that elections officials will have a harder time controlling – the misinformation Russian bots spew online. 

“We are going to have to be vigilant on Election Day if there are fake Twitter accounts out there saying, ‘Lines are around the block at (this) polling place. Don’t go vote. It’s not worth your trouble,’” Dietrich said. 

Two years later, SBE officials still don’t know why Russia would target Illinois. But they believe their goal was to undermine confidence in U.S. institutions. 

The best way to combat that, said Dietrich, is to go out and vote. In Illinois, eligible voters can register to vote in person on Election Day on Nov. 6 by going to their polling location and bringing two forms of identification to establish identity and residence.

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