Metro, News

Rhode Island targets election security

2018 federal bill appropriates $3 million to Rhode Island, $380 million given nationwide

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Rhode Island has received $3 million of the $380 million doled out by the federal government in April 2018 to improve election security. The state will dedicate the majority of its funding to improving the voter registration database, cybersecurity and auditing practices, according to the Help America Vote Act 2018 Funding Recommendations.

Rhode Island voters will cast their ballots in primary elections Sept. 12.

HAVA originated two years after the disputed 2000 presidential election, and is resurfacing with additional funds following evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. A 2018 bill appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars to the HAVA 2018 Election Security Fund — the first appropriation since 2010, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s website. President Trump signed the appropriations bill, titled the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018.

More than half of Rhode Island’s $3 million election security budget will go toward upgrading the Central Voter Registration System, according to the HAVA 2018 Funding Recommendations, compiled by R.I. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea. The R.I. Department of State looks to include experts from the University and Salve Regina University to increase the strength of the CVRS, according to the 2018 Election Cybersecurity report.

Substantial funding has also been allotted to improve cybersecurity and data recovery as well as to implement risk-limiting audits.

Risk-limiting audits are the “gold standard” when it comes to election auditing, according to Liz Howard, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Howard, who previously worked as deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections, focuses her work on cybersecurity and elections.

The audits use statistical analysis to determine if any intentional or unintentional factors have affected the outcome of an election, Howard said. While a regular audit looks only at an individual voting block or precinct, the new audit system will review the entire jurisdiction. The new system may allow state officials to review fewer ballots than under a traditional audit by mandating that officials scan the entire state instead of closely focusing on individual precincts, Howard said. During closer races, however, more ballots will be reviewed.

A 2017 bill passed by the state Legislature mandates that the risk-limiting audits be used for the 2020 presidential primary and general elections.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., is focused on the importance of election security as he campaigns for his re-election in September.

“President Trump’s most senior intelligence officials report that Russia is targeting our midterm elections right now. That comes on top of troubling reports from state and local officials, tech companies and nonpartisan experts about sophisticated Russian campaigns to influence our elections,” Whitehouse wrote in a statement to The Herald, adding that he and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., are working hard to “bolster our defenses by increasing funding for state election security.”

While elections in five states depend entirely on electronic machines, Rhode Island is sticking with paper, according to Deputy Director of Elections Miguel Nunez. Paper voting is one of the most important mechanisms to ensure election security, Howard said, citing a 2017 DEFCON 25 Voting Machine Hacking Village report that showed paperless machines were vulnerable to hacking.

“Every piece of equipment in the Voting Village was effectively breached in some manner,” the report read, adding that even “participants with little prior knowledge and only limited tools and resources were quite capable of undermining the confidentiality, integrity and availability of these systems.”

Still, paper machines are also vulnerable.

“No machine is unhackable,” Howard said, adding that  the audit is necessary to check for interference.

While Rhode Island remains loyal to paper voting, the state is changing up check-in protocol. The biggest change voters will see on election day is an electronic poll book, which will allow voters to sign their names before voting on an iPad, Nunez said.

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