What if There was an Attempt to Hack Elections in Washoe County?

November 20, 2018

Hacking the Washoe County election is not as easy as some might think. Yes, there have been some claims of election fraud, unsubstantiated to date; but, as Michael S. Graham reports, according to Deanna Spikula, Washoe County Registrar of Elections, our elections are defended by substantial security measures.


Deanna Spikula, Washoe County Registrar of Elections, has faced media scrutiny amid concerns of how free and fair U.S. elections still are. Photo by Michael S. Graham.


Claims of Voter Fraud


The Reno Gazette-Journal reported Tuesday, November 13th, that Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald claimed voter fraud in the general election. He offered no details, the RGJ said. But, what is voter fraud?


According to Spikula “voter fraud is a broad term,” she said. “So it depends on what exactly we’re talking about. It could be fraudulent applications being submitted where somebody’s using somebody else’s information to register, just like identity theft; or it could be someone trying to vote more than once, or voting across state lines, or in different jurisdictions.” It could also be someone trying to hack into “our system and changing our database,” she said.


Can the system be improved to be more secure?


Filling out a voter registration form, either in person or online is just the first step for the would-be voter. Washoe County works with the state and the federal government to ensure the accuracy of its voter rolls. Each registration is validated against two state-wide databases. According to Spikula, the Washoe County list of voters is submitted to a voter database maintained by the Nevada Secretary of State and the database of Nevada drivers at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Both databases are used to validate names, addresses and dates of birth.


Voter drives are conducted by non-government organizations such as a political party or advocate groups. According to Spikula, they have had problems with duplicates, up to eight or nine at a time, and even fake registrations from these drives in the past. Now, she said, “we reach out to them; we provide training for the people out doing voter registration. We want them to know Nevada law and registration procedures.” Photo by Michael S. Graham.


Who is in Charge at the State Level and Possibilities of Hacking?


The Secretary of State, Barbara Cegavske was elected in 2014 and was the only high-level Republican reelected in this election, and is the third highest ranking state official behind the Governor and Lieutenant Governor. She is responsible for maintaining the official records of the acts of the Nevada Legislature and of the executive branch of state government, as well as certifying all primary and general election results. She also supervises state and local elections.


Hacking into the voter system and changing results of the election is practically impossible; it “is the most difficult and least likely form of fraud,” Spikula said. She explained the election server, the computer that counts each individual vote, is isolated from the world. It is not connected to the Internet, she said, or to anything else. The software that runs on this computer and creates the tallies is verified by federal and state agencies before and after the election. The server, she said, is kept in a locked room “and access is strictly controlled.”


“We’ve been really on top of it. We have a lot of observers we work with a lot of groups,” Spikula said. “So again, I think we’ve pretty much covered our bases and I think we’re getting better and better every election with how we’re securing the vote.” And, she said, there is a lot of oversight from the state and at the federal level as well.


 Spikula has a lot of help in ensuring the fairness of Washoe County’s elections, including the above website.


Help for Registrars


Spikula’s office is a member of several national organizations that, she said, “gives us access to resources, newsletters, information sharing, white papers, webinars, trainings, threat alerts and notifications, as well as many other resources that are tremendous asset in our efforts to identify and negate any election infrastructure threats.”


These are:


-EI-ISAC (Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center). Among the services EI-ISAC provides are:


-§ 24/7 Security Operations Center


-§ Incident response and remediation


-§ Weekly Elections Security News Alerts


-§ Elections Sector Quarterly Report


-§ Election-specific threat intelligence


-§ Threat and vulnerability monitoring


-MI-ISAC (Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center), whose mission “is to improve the overall cybersecurity posture of the nation’s state, local, tribal and territorial governments through focused cyber threat prevention, protection, response, and recovery.”


-HSIN (Homeland Security Information Network), which “is the trusted network for homeland security mission operations to share sensitive but unclassified information. Federal, state, local, territorial, tribal, international and private sector homeland security partners use HSIN to manage operations, analyze data, send alerts and notices, and share the information they need to do their jobs and help keep their communities safe.”


Reporting by Michael S. Graham for the Reynolds Sandbox
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