Nebraska Secretary of State Counts Election Security as Highest Priority

Nebraska voters should feel secure at the polling place in May. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News).
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April 17, 2018 - 6:45am

Election cybersecurity in Nebraska is still considered a real threat, even though voters’ data in the state was not manipulated or hacked in the 2016 election like 21 other states targeted by Russia. Specific defenses instigated by the Nebraska secretary of state prior to the 2016 election are in place to help safeguard the integrity of the upcoming May 15th primary election.


A recent 60 Minutes news segment on CBS television titled “When Russian Hackers Targeted U.S. Election Infrastructure” reported Russia’s successful data heist in 2016 also included an election IT provider in Nebraska.

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale said the state will again partner with multiple vendors to conduct the upcoming election. Like 2016, the primary vendor will be Election Systems and Software based in Omaha.

 

Secretary of State John Gale wants to reassure Nebraska voters of the safety of the state's election system. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News).

 

Gale wants to reassure voters election security is his highest priority even though the Department of Homeland Security confirmed Nebraska was not one of the 21 swing states targeted by Russia.

 “We think we have the protections in place, plus we always can go back to, ok, you did disrupt our election night communication of unofficial results, yes, Russia, you accomplished that,” Gale said. “But, you did not change the vote in Nebraska; it was all certified by count on the county level based on those paper ballots.”

Gale said Nebraska is ahead of the curve regarding security. Protections are in place to ensure tampering is easily detected and if something were to occur, backup data is accessible.

“There are many levels of security but we feel like we are getting excellent cooperation from our vendors and our state agencies and from our county election officials,” Gale said.

Gale said his office has also had ongoing contact with regional representatives from the Department of Homeland Security.

“For the duration of 2018, we are very, very focused on improving all of our defenses both within the state as well as with our vendors, to improve our detection techniques,” Gale said.

David Shively, Lancaster County election commissioner, said Nebraska's been on the cutting edge of election security since adopting the optical scan method. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News).

 

Dave Shively, Lancaster County Election Commissioner, agreed with Gale that Nebraska voters should feel confident in the state’s election system. Shively said rigid testing, coding and auditing programs in all 93 counties help ensure the election process is safe from intrusion.

“For our primary election, since we have different types of ballots because of the different parties, I’ll probably run eight sets of ballots marked differently making sure every oval is being counted accurately,” Shively said.

Shively said the punch card debacle in Florida during the 2000 presidential election helped usher in the need for sweeping reforms to the nation's voting process. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act two years later.

“The issues that happened in Florida probably ended up being a good thing only because it brought attention to some stuff in that way,” Shively said. “Most people wouldn’t have known what a hanging chad is if it hadn’t been for Florida. That instituted a number of changes.”

 

Dr. Robin Gandhi, associate professor of Cybersecurity at University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Nebraska voters should feel safe in the statewide election system, despite previous threats to other swing states by Russian hackers. (Photo courtesy University of Nebraska at Omaha).

Changes that included more states using digital scanning equipment. In Nebraska, Shively said election results are transmitted through a secure website and official results come from the tabulation of paper ballots.

“We put aside the punch card system many years ago, and had gone to the optical scan type of program,” Shively said. “We’re on the cutting edge before all of that.”

Dr. Robin Gandhi, associate professor of cybersecurity at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said interest in cybersecurity has definitely increased with the news about Russian hacking and the recent Facebook data breach.

Gandhi said a mass scale cybersecurity attack to the American election system would be complicated and require huge financial resources. He said pulling off such a major attack without being detected would be nearly impossible.

“We have a limited amount of resources and budget when it comes to elections, and I think we should spend that judicially in places where there is a known threat of influencing the election,” Gandhi said.

Gandhi, who has been teaching at UNO since 2008, said Nebraska isn’t likely to be targeted in our upcoming election.

“Considering the threat that we face here in Nebraska, I think we should feel pretty safe in our election systems,” Gandhi said.

Secretary of State Gale agrees with Dr. Gandhi’s assessment that Nebraska voters should feel secure in their polling place in May. Gale said the election officials across the state have been well trained and on alert for any potential cybersecurity threats.

“Now what may happen in 2018, no one knows for sure,” Gale said. “But it’s a real threat; it’s a real issue we need to deal with. And whether they’re going to be attacking other aspects of our election system, we don’t know.”

Gale said one thing we do know is that Nebraska voters can count on their vote being counted on Election Day.

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