Paper Ballots, Training to Enhance Virginia Election Security

Virginians will be using paper ballots when casting their vote in the Nov. 3 elections, whether they mail them in, drop them off or vote in person.

That’s one way state officials can ensure the accuracy of the results, because the ballots provide a paper trail in case of audits, Daniel Persico, the Virginia Department of Elections’ chief information officer, said during a recent panel discussion on election security hosted by the Cyber Bytes Foundation in Quantico.

The state has also beefed up cybersecurity training and updated its certification standards for voting equipment. Machines must not be able to be accessed wirelessly, for example, he said.

Election security has become an increasing concern since the 2016 presidential election, which the Russians have been accused of trying to influence. Persico, along with Bob Kolasky, assistant director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and Harri Hursti, a world renowned cybersecurity expert and star of the recent HBO documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections,” said government agencies and private industry are working behind the scenes to thwart hackers.

CISA, the lead federal agency responsible for national election security, has a strategic plan called Protect 2020 to enhance the nation’s election infrastructure and give voters confidence in the electoral process, said Kolasky. It has created guides for election administrators on such things as innovative practices and cyberincident detection and reporting. It works with vendors on security vulnerability concerns and also provides information so false narratives aren’t spread through social media.

Kolasky said the agency also aggregates and shares intelligence about threats collected from local election officials, state agencies and the private sector, as well as federal agencies such as the FBI.

Persico said his office stays in touch with a private sector election analysis center and the Virginia Fusion Center, which fuses together key counterterrorism and criminal intelligence resources from government agencies and private industry.

“When we see nefarious activity, we report it. That’s been crucial,” he said. “If everybody’s working in silos, it doesn’t help. Partnership is crucial.”

Hursti, a big proponent of paper ballots, said the United States isn’t the only country facing threats to the security of its elections, and knowledge is the most effective weapon for fighting back.

“People in the front lines have to have information,” he said. “We’re in this cyberwar together.”

He said victims shouldn’t be embarrassed to report a hack, and governments need to find ways to shield citizens if necessary.

All three men said that misinformation is another concern, and voters shouldn’t trust everything they see or hear. Word that a polling place has been closed or changed, for example, should be double-checked on an official website. People should also research the source of information if a post seems intent on sowing division on matters such as the handling of protests or the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Think before you link,” said Kolasky. “Don’t do the Russians’ work for the Russians.”

He said CISA pushes people to get accurate information about participating in the democratic process, and hammers social media to enforce its terms of service so misinformation is deleted or corrected. Persico added that if people read something that doesn’t seem right, they should report it to local officials. That can be a critical step in keeping misinformation from being spread.

The good thing, Hursti said, is the work is being done to fix problems when they come up and people shouldn’t be discouraged about voting.

“If you are eligible to vote, please vote. If you have a friend who doesn’t have a ride, take them to vote. Help everybody vote,” he said. “And vote every race, don’t just vote in a tough race and leave everything else.

“Participate. Democracy is all about participation. And, if you care, become a poll worker.”

©2020 The Free Lance-Star, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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