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Cox says Utah election system under fire, but safe from malefactors

FILE - In this May 19, 2017, file photo, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox looks on during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.
FILE - In this May 19, 2017, file photo, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox looks on during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox offered a positive message Tuesday speaking about election security issues — even amid unprecedented levels of hacking attempts, voters can cast their upcoming midterm ballot in confidence that it will be duly and fairly tallied.

"We would encourage Utah voters to know that we're on the front lines fighting this battle for you," Cox said. "Know that this election is secure and you can be sure that your vote will count."

Cox, whose oversight of state elections is part of his duties as lieutenant governor, outlined the millions in new state funding and federal assistance that's been dedicated to beefing up security measures for this election cycle, including the latest in voting machine technology, upgrades to the voter registration database protections and partnerships that have helped bolster the state's digital resilience to those who would seek to infiltrate and disrupt the election process.

In the run-up to the primaries this summer, state digital security experts were monitoring traffic that rose as high as 1 billion daily attempts at nefarious activities, though not all of that traffic was actual "hacking" attempts.

Utah Chief Information Security Officer Phil Bates told the Desert News in July that the 1 billion daily incidents his team was blocking were not all attempts to enter the state's systems.

"The vast majority of this is reconnaissance and surveillance traffic," Bates said at the time. "They are attempts to try to identify assets in our network. Some of it is just port scans, but some is more complex than that."

On Tuesday, Cox noted that earlier this year when he learned that Mitt Romney would be on Utah ballots, he took it as an election security call to arms.

"(When) it became clear that a former presidential candidate was going to run for office here in the state of Utah, someone who had been negative in his views of Russia in the past … we knew that that alone might make us more of a target," Cox said. "I wrote a memo to my election staff as well as the Department of Technology Services telling them that this had to be our focus this year. That our No. 1 priority had to be upgrading and making sure we were prepared for whatever might come our way."

To that end, Cox and his team have distributed some $4.5 million in one-time state funding to counties for upgrading voting machines, and are utilizing $500,000 in annual ongoing funding from the legislature to harden security measures.

In addition, Utah qualified for $4.1 million in federal funding via the Helping America Vote Act. About half of that funding also went into new voting machines, $300,000 to enhance state web security and $2.9 million to revamp the state administered voter registration database, which is the only significant digital election asset that is actually accessible via the internet.

Mark Mitchell, Cox's director of election systems, said both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and nonprofit Center for Internet Security are assisting the state in monitoring systems for signs of intrusion attempts. And, Cox said DHS has already stress-tested Utah's systems, which he said got high marks from the security agency.

"We allowed Homeland Security to do several rounds of testing," Cox said. "On-site and remotely, we allowed them to come in and search for vulnerabilities and try to find weaknesses in our systems. The good news is we've probably got the cleanest bill of health of any state in the nation."

Cox also underscored that the most critical aspects of Utah's voting system, including voting machines, ballot counting equipment and vote tabulation equipment, all operate offline and unconnected to any hackable digital networks.

The new voting machines, which will be in use in 21 of Utah's 29 counties, all include a paper record of every vote, according to Cox. He also estimated that 90 percent of all votes cast in the upcoming election will take place via vote-by-mail ballots, which are now being used as the default method in 27 counties.