Secretary candidates describe approaches to election security

Boston Statehouse
state house

Reminding voters that hackers have targeted election systems in other states, secretary of state candidate Josh Zakim said Wednesday he would add seven to 10 full-time cybersecurity specialists to his staff if elected.

Zakim held a press conference outside the State House to release an election security plan, which pegs the salary budget for his proposed Cybersecurity Operations Center at $600,000 to $750,000. The center, according to Zakim’s plan, would operate on a 24/7 basis and monitor the office’s internal data, including voter rolls.

“We need a secretary of state who can be proactive on this, who is not going to say status quo is OK, because it’s not,” Zakim said. “There have already been attempted hacks in other states that have been widely reported from intelligence agencies, from national security agencies, and in the press, and Massachusetts needs to be ready for 2018 and 2020.”

A Boston city councilor who won the Democratic Party’s endorsement at its June convention, Zakim is running against six-term incumbent Secretary William Galvin of Brighton. The winner of the Sept. 4 primary will face off in November against Swampscott Republican Anthony Amore.

“The Department of Homeland Security officially informed our office that we were not hacked in 2016, and Secretary Galvin intends to continue to do everything possible to make sure that it remains that way,” said Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Galvin’s office. “This includes continuing the practices that Secretary Galvin has always insisted upon in Massachusetts. We will continue to use only paper ballots and ensure that voters’ personal information is kept on a system which is not connected to the internet.”

Galvin told lawmakers in Feburary that he believed the reason Massachusetts was not the target of an attempted hack was because of the state’s “closed system” where the voter database is not connected to the internet and can only be accessed by Galvin’s office and local elections offices.

O’Malley said the secretary’s office has an information technology division that includes “several” staff who work solely on cybersecurity, and that everyone in the IT division “works on cybersecurity to some degree.” She said the office also uses contractors who support maintenance, security and systems testing.

“We have had this staff in place for decades, since we built our statewide voter database,” O’Malley said.

Zakim’s plan also calls for risk-limiting audits to be conducted after all state and federal elections, a process he said involves analyzing samples after ballots are cast to “see if things look out of whack” and detect possible intrusions.

Republican candidate Amore, a former Department of Homeland Security official who now works as director of security at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, said in an NECN interview last week that he sees election security as “the next big challenge” and that the state must ensure the integrity of voter rolls in cities and towns.

“These are connected via one system,” Amore said. “Now, the secretary of state will say it’s secure because that information is not on the internet. That’s not true. It’s not on what you and I would consider the front-facing internet, but of course it’s on the internet, and it communicates via an antiquated telephone system. What we’re essentially saying is the security of our democracy in Massachusetts relies upon 1990s technology.”

Zakim’s plan said it is “necessary but insufficient” to use paper ballots and a central voter roll that is not connected to the internet.

“Absolutely we need to continue with our paper ballots, but it’d be foolhardy to say that we are protected completely because of that,” Zakim told reporters. “There are electronic systems that are happening here, whether it’s some of the voting machines, whether it’s our central voter file, and we need to be protecting those every day more and more.”

Zakim said Massachusetts could update its equipment, set up training and otherwise bolster election security with the more than $43 million the state has remaining from the Help America Vote Act, a 2002 law that made funding available for states to improve election administration and voting systems. Backers of an automatic voter registration bill that’s now on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk have also eyed the HAVA money to implement automatic registration.

“Massachusetts ranks dead last in using what is essentially free federal money just to upgrade these systems,” Zakim said. “Just to say because we don’t think we were hacked in 2016 is no way to say that we’re sure we’re not going to be hacked in 2018 or 2020 or beyond.”

O’Malley, Galvin’s spokeswoman, said his office has “applied for every available federal dollar to ensure that elections in Massachusetts continue to be secure” and that a HAVA advisory committee recently met to determine the best way to spend those funds.

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