Computer hackers are ramping up their efforts to disrupt Utah’s upcoming elections, but the state seems poised to guard against any nefarious digital disruption.
According to the state’s chief elections officer, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah blocks up to 1 billion hacker attacks per day “from Russia, China and elsewhere.” Because of issues and candidates on the Utah ballot, he expects it will only get worse as Election Day approaches. Propositions regarding education funding, medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and redistricting are generating high voter interest. And, Cox says, Mitt Romney’s name on the ballot has particularly increased cyber attacks from Europe. Romney labeled Russia as this nation’s primary geopolitical foe during his 2012 presidential campaign, and The Bear apparently has not forgotten.
But Utah voters can be confident that the Beehive State is prepared to fend off hackers and to ensure that every ballot reflects exactly what the voter intends. The state has taken several important steps, including updating voting machines, working with federal agencies to find and correct vulnerabilities in election processes and working closely with the Department of Homeland Security on cybersecurity protocols. The transition to vote-by-mail has also lessened the ability of would-be troublemakers to cause Election Day havoc. Even the most sophisticated cyber bandit can’t hack paper.
Not all states are as fortunate and prepared as Utah. Five states still have no paper ballots at all and rely solely on voting machines. Others use machines that are old and unreliable; one report found some have had to find spare parts on eBay.
Good news is the nation’s voting processes are highly decentralized, which prevents hackers from breaking into one centralized system. The downside is states employ a hodgepodge of approaches to cybersecurity. And bad actors are continually refining their methods of attack, making defending against them an ongoing challenge.
This past March, the federal government made available $380 million to states to upgrade their cybersecurity systems, but some state officials and election security experts say that amount is woefully inadequate to make a meaningful difference. Helping to protect and ensure the integrity of the nation’s electoral processes is an appropriate role of the federal government, but throwing large amounts of money at the issue is not the answer. Nor should the government try to establish a one-size-fits-all list of do's and don’ts for which it has become so famous. The problem is too complex for simple solutions.
A better approach is for national security experts to educate state officials and empower them with the tools to make the best decisions for their geographic areas.
Utah is smaller and less diverse than some other states, so it could be argued that this state has less to do to prepare for cyber invasions. But having leaders who understand the threat, know how to approach it and what to do to counter it are major elements of any battle. Utah is fortunate to have such officials at the helm.