VOL. 42 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 26, 2018
State voters have more to fear than Russian meddling
About 30 years ago, my wife and I were hanging out with another couple and decided to make a big night of it. We’d go out for Mexican food and then rent a movie.
After we had some Mexican grub, we went to Kroger to find a flick. As we perused the selections, my friend said, “What about a Russian spy movie?” To which his girlfriend (future wife, now ex-wife) whined, “John, you know I don’t speak Russian.” (His name is changed to protect the innocent.)
Wife Diane and I have gotten a lot of mileage out of that one over the years. We can hardly settle on a movie without considering a Russian spy film, which leads to inevitable punchline. And every time she says, “Quit rushin’ me” when I’m in a hurry to go somewhere, I respond, “You know I don’t speak Russian.”
Of course, the problem 30 years ago was that my friend’s future wife wasn’t kidding. And neither are the Russians these days.
Three decades after the Cold War ended they’re getting into our business in a big way, and no matter whether Bob Mueller finds someone in the Trump camp colluded with the Russians, it’s pretty clear they’ve been trying to manipulate our elections and in some cases succeeded.
It’s well known a Russian-created Twitter account fooled people into thinking it was a Tennessee Republican Party site. The president even responded to one of the sites with a tweet, and numerous people in Trump’s inner circle posted items on the @TEN_GOP account, reportedly a Russian “troll farm” designed to sway voters, according to multiple reports.
To head off such twits, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro is sponsoring legislation requiring financial disclosure for ads on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter in the same way the state requires disclosures on paid advertisements in the mail and on TV.
“We know that Tennesseans saw political electoral content that was paid for in rubles and produced by the Russians, and we’ve taken no steps to protect our electoral communications,” adds Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat who chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Yarbro’s legislation, carried in the House by Rep. Jason Powell, another Nashville Democrat, is among a litany of legislation Democrats are bringing this session designed mainly to bolster voter participation as Tennessee lags at the back of the national pack in turnout.
Republicans are sponsoring a couple of bills, too, but Democrats appear to be more focused on votes and are backing bills that would do everything from move voter registration deadlines closer to election days to increase online voter registration, register people to vote when they get their licenses, allow seniors to mail in ballots and enable college students to use campus IDs for voting purposes.
Yet another bill would require a paper trail for votes because, Yarbro says, about 80 percent of the state’s election machines don’t have any paper accounting, which means if someone hacked into machines, all of those votes would be lost. The state has about $28 million sitting in an account for local election offices to buy new equipment.
Was it really Russians?
Both President Trump and former President Barack Obama broached the term “critical infrastructure” in reference to election systems over the past couple of years with Trump calling the 2016 vote “rigged.”
Several legislators appear to see Russia as the culprit. And Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett told lawmakers in a recent hearing 21 states were targeted by an outside actor, though he couldn’t say it was Russia beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“Each and every day we are under attack, under cyberattack,” Hargett told the committee.
He and Division of Elections Coordinator Mark Goins work with a cybersecurity director and private vendor Strategic Technology Solutions as well as the FBI, TBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security to keep hackers away from state systems and data.
“Really, it’s a culture change,” acknowledges Goins, one shifting to security from convenience.
Questioned by senators about the vulnerability of Tennessee’s voter data and election machines, Goins explained how Shelby County piloted an e-poll book in 2008 containing voter data that made its way into someone else’s hands. The Shelby County elections administrator made an accounting that turned out OK, and ultimately officials found a vendor lost the “chain of command,” according to Goins, who confirmed no Social Security numbers were in the data.
Hargett told senators Shelby County data is not vulnerable to being compromised. Yet Yarbro points out people were able to break into machines during a summer conference and obtain information on about 650,000 Tennessee voters.
“We know the election systems that we use in Tennessee are subject to being hacked,” he adds, reiterating the need for a paper trail.
Hargett agrees the money is available for counties to buy or lease election machines but notes he and Goins are “machine agnostic,” leaving it up to county administrators and election commissions which machines to purchase. He adds that federal legislation could affect election equipment, so he wants to “slow down a little bit.”
In response to Yarbro’s concerns about election machines being blown up and voter data and results lost, Goins said some of the machines hacked at the conference are decertified or not used. Modems are not allowed across the state, either.
“If you’re looking at the machines we used here, there was a physical access, there was no remote access, and that was the distinction. So when you’re talking about hacking, they had screwdrivers, they had other tools, and that’s how they physically got in to the machines we use here. So, it’s not easy to get in,” Goins said.
Hargett and Goins point out voting machines are not connected to the internet, so a computer hacker is not able to get access to the information. In addition, the information is transported by vehicle from polling sites to election offices where it is compiled and results are disseminated. This is called an “air gap.”
The secretary of state does acknowledge a hacker could manipulate data county election offices send to the state Division of Elections, which could affect the numbers on the Secretary of State’s website and cause a loss of public trust. But those numbers aren’t the certified results.
“That’s what would be hard to explain to people, how that data changed,” Hargett admits.
And even if someone were able to flip a national presidential election the night of the vote, those results are unofficial, Goins says. The numbers have to go through a certification process and verification.
Tennessee has been participating since 2008 in the Interstate Crosscheck System, a Kansas-based program in which states receive a list of voter registrations with individuals who have matching first and last names and birthdays. The idea is to purge people’s names from voter rolls to keep them from voting in multiple states.
The program has come under fire lately, though, following a Washington Post article – citing research done by Harvard, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania and Microsoft – showing Crosscheck “would eliminate about 200 registrations used to cast legitimate votes for every one registration used to cast a double vote.”
States with large numbers of people with the name William Smith or Maria Rodriguez and the same birthdays could wind up targeting them for a purge. Crosscheck also matches Social Security numbers to determine whether someone is voting across state lines.
Other targeted voter registrations involve errors such as voters signing the wrong line in a polling book, election clerks scanning an incorrect line or confusion about father/son voters with a Jr. and Sr. in the name. (Sort of like a near boondoggle involving me and my son in a recent election.)
Oregon, Washington and Florida are bailing from Crosscheck while 28 other states stick with it. Others use an Electronic Registration Information Center started six years ago.
“Given all the number of error rates, the litigation happening around Crosscheck, the number of states dropping out, how do we justify continuing to be involved in that?” Yarbro asks.
In addition, Yarbro says the state’s removal rate has jumped from 5 to 7 percent since it started using Crosscheck.
Goins and Hargett admit Crosscheck has “false positives” and say they’ve had serious discussions about the matter following publication of the Washington Post. But they don’t appear to be ready to make a change.
“We are painstakingly thorough when we’re looking at who needs to be removed based on that Crosscheck. So, we just don’t look at the list and say they have a matching name and date of birth and we’re gonna remove them,” Goins explains.
Last year, the state removed about 200 names from voter rolls through Crosscheck and has done more in the past, Goins says.
But to switch to the Electronic Registration Information Center, the state would have to agree to certain procedures and lose some of its “power,” in addition to paying a membership fee, Goins adds.
Though some might characterize Crosscheck as “a partisan program,” the Division of Elections started participating in it before Hargett took office and “at the urging of the Democratic-controlled General Assembly,” according to Secretary of State spokesman Adam Ghassemi. It has no cost of contractual term, he says.
The division declines to get involved in “partisan rancor” but contends registering to vote is “extremely accessible,” and people can register at the Department of Safety & Homeland Security, Department of Human Services, Department of Health and/or the Department of Veterans Services, Ghassemi points out.
In addition, election officials go to high schools to register students, and the Division of Elections works extensively with colleges to hold voter registration drives and started the online voter registration so people can register at home any time of the day.
If someone wants to vote, they can take the required steps. After all, most people have a state-issued driver’s license.
But the state’s voter photo ID law continues to be a nuisance to people who say they believe every person’s vote should count. And when a person can use their gun carry permit to vote but not a state-issued college ID, that’s questionable at best.
Since it took effect five years ago, hundreds of people have been disenfranchised. And people keep having their ballots dismissed because they can’t seem to get the right photo.
The Division of Elections tracked provisional ballots in the March 1, 2016 presidential preference primary when 1,240,178 voters cast ballots. Of those, 317 were provisional ballots cast because of a lack of valid photo ID, and 231 of those failed to return to their election office within two business days of the election with a valid photo ID to have their ballot count, according to Ghassemi.
Considering former state Sen. Jim Tracy lost a congressional race in 2014 to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais by 38 votes, it is painfully obvious every vote is important to the outcome. Those 231 could turn an election.
But the bigger problem is voter participation and, no matter what state officials say about it, Tennessee is struggling.
The problem could be too many people paying too much attention to Facebook and Twitter, bragging about what they ate for breakfast or where they’re spending vacation while looking at Russian-backed posts encouraging them to vote Donald over Hillary.
At this rate, maybe we better start learning to speak Russian. And that’s not very funny.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.