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How dated voting equipment exposes elections to interference

Election security was in the news this week, as former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress about the level to which Russia interfered in the 2016 election -- and plans to do it again. Now the Senate Intelligence Committee is releasing its own report on the problem. John Yang talks to the Democracy Fund’s Tammy Patrick about whether U.S. election authorities are prepared.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been a central topic this week, first in the nationally televised congressional hearings with former special counsel Robert Mueller, and now with volume one of a much anticipated report from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

    How much of a threat does Russia pose to American elections and the American political system?

    John Yang has our report.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, on Capitol Hill this week, Robert Mueller was at his most direct on the question of Russian efforts to influence the U.S. elections.

    Here he is responding to a question from Republican Congressman Will Hurd of the Intelligence Committee.

  • Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas:

    In your investigation, did you think that this was a single attempt by the Russians to get involved in our election, or did you find evidence that suggests they will try to do this again?

  • Robert Mueller:

    No, it wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.

  • John Yang:

    Now the Senate Intelligence Committee has begun releasing its own report on Russia's interference in the 2016 elections.

    The 67-page first volume says that Russia targeted election systems in all 50 states. That goes beyond what was previously known. It also says that Russia was able to exploit the separation between the federal intelligence apparatus and the states' responsibilities for holding elections, and that states were not sufficiently warned or prepared to respond to the Russian efforts.

    Tammy Patrick is senior adviser to the Elections Program at the Democracy Fund and for 11 years was an election official in Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix.

    Tammy, thank you very much for being with us.

  • Tammy Patrick:

    Thank you for having me.

  • John Yang:

    Did anything in the Senate Intelligence Committee report surprise you?

  • Tammy Patrick:

    So, I think one of the most important aspects of this report coming out is that it confirms many of the things we already knew that were going on, that there is a foreign nation state adversary who is bent on interrupting our electoral process in a variety of ways.

    So, it really confirmed what we have read in the special counsel's report, what we have seen in public testimony and hearings in the last couple of years ago.

    One of the things that I think is really critical about the report is that it shows us what happened in 2016. It also lays out the great strides we have made since that time and reminds us of what we need to do to shore up 2020.

  • John Yang:

    It says that state officials weren't prepared in 2016. You said there have been great strides.

    Are they prepared now for 2020?

  • Tammy Patrick:

    I believe so, from what we know that we could potentially expect.

    And that's where we have challenges, is that these are sophisticated nation states that are attacking county websites, municipal websites. So it's the case that we need to really attack this in the same level of importance and shore up those defenses in an appropriate way.

    A local elections office doesn't have the type of cyber, you know, chops to be able to defend itself. And that's why the efforts that have been done in the last two years have been so critical.

    So the election we just saw in 2018 was, I think, the most secure election we have ever had, and we still have a ways to go, but we need resources to be able to fund the efforts in order to make sure we're where we need to be next year.

  • John Yang:

    One of the basic safeguards that the report talks about and other election officials talk about is having a paper trail, a paper backup even for an electronic voting machine.

    There are some states, like New Jersey, who say they simply don't have the money for this.

  • Tammy Patrick:

    And that's correct.

    So, one of the challenges with election administration and the funding of our elections equipment is that it's an infusion of funds usually every 10 to 15 years, and then it falls off the purview of state legislatures, of county board of supervisors of thinking what we need to do to maintain the technology of the systems we're using to count and cast our votes.

    So, think of the telephone that is in your pocket. If it was the same telephone you were using 15 years ago, imagine the difference in technology that you would be functioning at than what we have today.

    So it's important that we are able to keep our voting systems at the same level of technology that we expect from our cars and from our telephones and even the voice in the speaker that sits on our kitchen cabinet.

  • John Yang:

    Last year, Congress appropriated money to the states to help them build up their election systems. And this report says, while — once that money is spent, maybe Congress should consider another appropriation.

    Is that enough?

  • Tammy Patrick:

    So, the money that was spent last year — and much of it was done to help shore up the system. So we now have what they call Albert sensor.

    And some of this is laid out in the report. Some of the kind of wonky technical aspects that were done to protect our elections were done because, and only because, of that funding. But that funding wasn't enough to replate voting equipment in every jurisdiction in this country.

    And there are voting systems out there that people are using that they have been using for 10, 15 years or more. What's critical is to know that we have a paper backup for the ballots, so should there be any sort of technical problem, we still have the paper to review, that we can do post-election audits and make sure that the equipment is functioning properly.

    And not all of this older equipment has the same sort of capability. And that's why we need to have a steady stream of resource allocations to fund our elections properly and show that they are really a critical part of our infrastructure and something that we value.

  • John Yang:

    How much of a problem is it that all states, all localities don't have that paper backup that you talked about?

  • Tammy Patrick:

    The paper backup is critical.

    And I will say that I don't know of an election official in any of those states that currently don't have a paper backup that wouldn't like to have them, that haven't been asking their state legislatures for the funding to replace their old voting equipment, so that they will have a paper backup.

    And that's where it is important that we get the funding that we need in order to replace some of the older equipment and make sure that we do have paper, in case we need to do it for post-election audits, and heaven forbid there's a recount.

  • John Yang:

    Tammy Patrick with the Democracy Fund, thank you very much.

  • Tammy Patrick:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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