Long before cybersecurity became a daily headline in the news, the Secretary of State’s office has been working to ensure the protection of the state’s election system. The system involves functions on the state and county levels, differing types of equipment, multiple vendors and varying internet and database processes. It is a complex and integrated system – one that is managed daily by members of the Secretary of State’s Elections Division and IT personnel as well as the 93 county election officials.
Pursuant to the U.S. Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), Nebraska purchased voting and tabulation equipment as well as a new election management system (EMS). That system helped to centralize many significant functions under the Secretary of State, however, it is very dependent on information technology through websites and databases and transmissions with vendors and counties.
Threats to election security are real and are likely to be of ongoing concern. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, federal authorities revealed that 21 states had been targeted by bad actors, presumably originating from Russia. Nebraska was not among those states.
It is likely that bad actors will continue to test the vulnerability of election systems. Manipulating the outcome of a race may be one goal. The other concern is access to personal information that is provided by registrants and permanently stored in the voter database. That is true not only in Nebraska, but in all states.
In the past, the Secretary of State’s office has had external risk assessments performed. In 2016 the Nebraska Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) provided scanning services to state websites related to elections. In addition, vendors were cooperative in reviewing their own security protocols and performing self-scans of their systems.
Listed below are areas of the election process which have been identified as potential targets of manipulation, disruption or hacking, plus an explanation of what Nebraska has done and is doing to address those concerns.
Certification of Election Equipment. Nebraska uses two primary types of voting equipment during an election. The first is an optical scanner. This machine reads a marked ballot and tabulates the votes, based on where the marks appear for each race or ballot issue. The second type of equipment is a ballot-marking device known as an AutoMARK. AutoMARKs were specifically designed with a variety of tools to allow voters who are disabled to cast a paper ballot privately and unassisted.
All equipment utilized in Nebraska was purchased through Election Systems and Software, LLC (ES&S). All equipment used in the state is federally certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC).
Paper Ballots. One of the key components to election security in Nebraska is the utilization of paper ballots. Ballots that are mailed in or cast at a precinct are secured and then loaded into a tabulation machine for counting. Because the AutoMARK marks a paper ballot, rather than recording votes electronically, ballots marked by the AutoMARK can also be loaded into the same tabulation machines for counting.
In an audit or recount, paper ballots allow election officials to match every tabulated vote to a physical ballot. All paper ballots are secured after each election by the county election official, and as mandated in state law, retained for 22 months. Ballots are anonymous so votes cannot be traced to individual voters.
Election results posted on the Secretary of State’s election night website are wholly unofficial, since actual ballot count totals determine election outcomes. If someone were to disrupt that particular website, it would not impact the actual outcome of the election. All results published in the Official Report of the Board of State Canvassers are based on the tally of paper ballots and 93 county abstracts, which have been certified and mailed to the state by each county.
Mock Election. Commonly referred to as a Mock Election, this is the process by which county election officials test the process of tabulating ballots and uploading results, prior to Election Day. Three test decks are created for the logic and accuracy test.
Ballots are run through the tabulation equipment and the machine results are compared to a hand count, to ensure that the results match. Afterward, each county transmits the results to the Secretary of State’s election night reporting system – the website that displays the results of each statewide election. This ensures that the live, unofficial results on Election Day are correctly matched to the proper candidates. That website is inaccessible until the close of polls on Election Day, so that no test results from the mock election are accessed by the public.
AutoMARKS, Tabulation Machines and Accessory Security. As mentioned previously, Nebraska currently utilizes two types of equipment during an election – an AutoMARK machine and an optical scanning device which reads the ballots. Both types of equipment are stored by the counties in secure locations until they are needed for early voting or in each polling place on Election Day. The state maintains an updated list of inventory. If repairs are necessary, counties can reach out to the providing vendor directly or coordinate remediation of the problem through the state.
Tabulation machines are stand-alone equipment. They are not connected to the internet or any other network, not even to transmit results.
Transmission of Results. Just as equipment is kept secure by county election officials, they also make sure that the transmission of results on Election Day is handled in a precise and secure manner. As they did during the Mock Election, county officials will transmit results to the Secretary of State’s office either manually, or by uploading a digital file. In Nebraska, counties use a mixture of methods, both of which are password protected and submitted electronically.
There again, all transmitted vote totals are confirmed through a comparison to the county abstract of votes. Those reports are sent by the county election official to the Secretary of State’s office, which compiles the official Canvass Book for each statewide election.
Post-election Audit. Following every statewide election, the Secretary of State’s office works with county election officials to complete a post-election audit. This audit is another method by which officials can confirm that ballots were read and accurately tabulated during the course of the election.
Taking into account the total number of precincts utilized during the election, the state randomly selects between two and two and a half percent of precincts to be tested. Votes cast in one federal race, one state race and one local race are hand counted and compared to the machine tabulations for the same races in those precincts. Any discrepancies are checked and noted in a report provided to the Secretary of State’s office.
Online Voter Registration System. There are two components to Nebraska’s online voter registration system. The first one is managed by the Secretary of State’s office, called NEReg2Vote. When voters log onto the website, they can submit a new voter registration or update the information associated with their current registration.
The second part of the online voter registration system is available through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website. Users who are ordering a duplicate license or a replacement, can complete an online form which allows them to register to vote or update the information in their current registration.
Driver’s licenses or state identification cards are required to utilize either online voter registration system. Without a driver’s license or state ID card, the registrant must register in person or by mail with a paper voter registration form.
Both electronic voter registration processes are secure and designed to quickly transmit encrypted information, including the registrant’s signature, into the state’s online voter registration system. Only authorized personnel within the Secretary of State’s office and the election system vendor can access and manage the system.
Voter Registration System. The type of voter registration system we refer to here is different from the online voter registration system that allows someone to submit a voter registration online. This refers to the database of voter registrations that are accessed by county election officials for processing. County workers spend a great deal of time reviewing and processing new and updated registrations prior to an election. In addition to that important function, this system also allows officials to carry out a variety of additional duties. For example, counties can remove registrants who have been convicted of a felony, died, or have moved away (in accordance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA)). To help facilitate those functions, the voter registration database is regularly compared to a number of other databases.
Data is backed up on a daily basis and kept on redundant servers as well. Detailed audit logs are maintained for every action taken within the system and on its servers. If there was ever any sign of hacker intrusion or manipulation of voter registrations, backup versions of those records could be accessed.
Additionally, election vendors routinely conduct internal and external scans of their systems to insure that there has been no intrusion or hacking. In Nebraska, the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) also scans state websites associated with election processes in Nebraska.
Contingency Plans. While cyber threats have gained a lot of attention, there are other issues and problems that can occur and disrupt an election including: severe weather, power outages, medical emergencies, bomb threats or accidents involving the transportation of ballots or tabulated results. In Nebraska, county election officials are provided with Election Emergency Preparedness Guidelines, which helps to guide them through the steps they should take, should any disruption occur.
The Secretary of State’s office also maintains an Election Integrity Unit, consisting of trained staff members who can take information from voters wishing to report any inappropriate behavior witnessed at a polling place. In addition to that resource, cards are created and distributed to state and federal officials and law enforcement, who may be called upon to handle unusual or emergency situation during an election.
Other Resources: Since January 2017, the nation’s election system has been deemed critical infrastructure by the Department of Homeland Security. With that designation, states were granted access to programs and services offered through the federal government. Dialogue and cooperation between Nebraska and the Department of Homeland Security has significantly increased and is ongoing.
The Secretary of State has an excellent partnership with the state OCIO office and vendors who monitor and maintain their own safety protocols and provide protections as necessary. Lastly, the state continues to provide training and advice to county election officials concerning cybersecurity threats as well as investigating new avenues for adding protections to the system.