Commentary: Protecting democracy one voter at a time

By Mary Beth Schneider
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS—Special counsel Robert Mueller seldom speaks publicly, so it’s important to listen when he does.

Wednesday, Mueller reiterated the findings of his 448-page report and ended with this warning: “There were multiple systematic efforts to interfere in our (2016) election. And that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

Mary Beth Schneider

He is sounding an air raid siren, yet few seem to hear.

The concern isn’t necessarily about altering votes. It’s about social media attacks to spread disinformation and — most importantly — about attempts to hack into voter registration systems. In a day when thousands of people see their votes rejected because their handwriting at 80 doesn’t look like their signature at 21, or because their current ID doesn’t exactly match the name they used when they registered, it’s a serious issue. A name can be stricken from voter rolls entirely, middle initials changed, spellings altered.

It’s not that those things have happened. I’ve seen no definitive proof of that. And voting machines themselves aren’t connected online. But voter rolls are computerized. And in a day when emails, Facebook and Twitter accounts can be hacked, any vulnerability has to be recognized and guarded against.

Because at least some attempts have occurred.

The online news site The Intercept reported in June 2017 that Russian military intelligence, known as the GRU, sent spearphishing emails to Florida counties, hoping to get an overworked clerk or election worker to click on a link that would let the Russians access voter registration information. And in April the Mueller report confirmed that “the FBI believes that this operation enabled the GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government.”

Later, it was determined that two counties were affected, and while the FBI said it had no evidence data was altered, they also said they could not avow “with certainty” that no manipulations had occurred, according to a New York Times article.

Indiana, at least, is trying to respond to this threat.

Included in the two-year budget passed this year by the state legislature is $10 million for voting equipment security, though only in the first year. Valerie Warycha, deputy chief of staff and communications director for Secretary of State Connie Lawson, said the money is for a one-time purchase to add voter verifiable paper trails to voting equipment in Indiana and also to purchase what she called “intrusion detection systems” for counties.

Those systems are meant to discover if any person or group is trying to access voting information, and potentially prevent exactly what happened in Florida.

“The intrusion detection systems will monitor internet traffic coming into the county,” Warycha said. “This is important because counties have access to the statewide voter registration system.”

The state already has intruder-alert protection at the statewide level, she added.

It’s an important investment.

But it’s not enough.

Lawson, who as secretary of state is Indiana’s chief elections official, has determined it would cost $75 million to replace all of the direct-record electronic voting equipment in Indiana or upgrade them so that they have a paper trail that voters can see to verify that their votes were cast and counted properly

Currently, 58 of the 92 counties have those systems.

The legislature deemed it didn’t have the funds in the $34.6 billion two-year budget it passed, which left Indiana still with a $2 billion surplus.

There’s always more needs than dollars. And education, helping vulnerable children and funding Medicaid health care for the poor are important priorities.

But so, too, is ensuring that when you go to the polls on Election Day to choose your government, you are not wrongly turned away and your vote is counted accurately.

In 2018, Indiana was one of five states to get a failing grade on election security from the Center for American Progress. A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice, which among other things monitors voting issues, noted 40 states including Indiana are using voting equipment that is at least 10 years old. And Indiana is one of 12 states still using equipment with no voter-verifiable paper trail.

Lawson, at least, is heeding the concerns by seeking the money needed to upgrade equipment and prevent cyber attacks. She used $7.5 million in federal funds to boost election security, in addition to the $10 million in the state budget.

But that leaves Indiana still far short of the $75 million she says is needed.

Yes, it’s a lot.

Fair elections, though, seem worth it.

Mary Beth Schneider is an editor with TheStatehouseFile.com, an online news site powered by Franklin College journalists.

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