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Virginia Election Serves As First Test Of U.S. Voting System Security


Virginia and New Jersey hold statewide elections this fall. They're the first big elections since Russia targeted voting systems in 21 states last year. Since then, election officials have been scrambling to tighten security. NPR's Pam Fessler went to Virginia to see how it's going.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: You wouldn't think that tiny Falls Church, Va., would be on the frontlines of defense against Russian cyberattacks, but it is even though it has only 10,000 voters and an election office so small it's crammed with a couple of desks and tables and, on this day, some brand new voting machines.

DAVID BJERKE: This is a blank ballot, so it will come out and...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It might say that.

BJERKE: Different election.


FESSLER: Workers here are testing the equipment to make sure it's ready for November. The Virginia Board of Elections this month took the extraordinary step of declaring just weeks before the election that paperless voting machines used here in Falls Church and elsewhere were too insecure and that new equipment had to be purchased immediately.

BJERKE: It looks like a suitcase. It opens up, and that's where the scanner is. And the voter will take their ballot and feed it.

FESSLER: Falls Church elections director David Bjerke says now voters will cast paper ballots that can be counted later if the electronic tally is questioned. That should reassure voters the election is secure, although Bjerke admits many around here think the threat of hacking by Russia or anyone else is pretty remote.

BJERKE: Hey, we don't have to worry about it. It's not like they're going to target us. Unfortunately we've seen localities get targeted.

FESSLER: In fact Russian intelligence reportedly sent malicious emails last year to more than a hundred local election offices as part of a phishing attack. Then this summer, hackers at a convention in Las Vegas easily broke into some of the paperless electronic voting machines used in Virginia, which is why the state banned them so abruptly.

EDGARDO CORTES: In terms of cybersecurity (laughter) - we worry about here every day and every night.

FESSLER: Edgardo Cortes is Virginia's elections commissioner. He says he doesn't fret so much about hackers changing votes.

CORTES: But it's more the possibility of disruption in the process.

FESSLER: Things like tampering with voter registration systems that can cause confusion at the polls.

CORTES: Alright, well, good afternoon, everybody. We're getting ready to get started. There's some more seats at the table for anybody that...

FESSLER: So two weeks ago, Cortes met at the Capitol in Richmond with state police, IT officials, county registrars and emergency managers to go over Election Day contingency plans to make sure that voters can continue casting ballots no matter what. Such pre-election meetings in the past have focused on things like hurricanes and power failures. But this year there's a new sense of urgency.

CORTES: We have emergency contact info for all the registrars. I know that's been super helpful, especially for state police and VDOT and some of those agencies.

FESSLER: The state has also given cybersecurity training to local election officials and is working more closely with federal authorities. Just last Friday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told Virginia it was among 21 states targeted last year by Russian hackers. The state's election website, an online registration system, were scanned, but there's no evidence of any breach. Bob Kolasky, an acting deputy undersecretary at DHS, says his agency is now in weekly contact with both Virginia and New Jersey.

ROBERT KOLANSKY: And as they ramp up toward the election, we're obviously looking to see if there's any sign of anything which would cause a need for increased attention.

FESSLER: Have you seen any signs yet?


FESSLER: But if there are, Kolanksy promises his agency will be more open to sharing intelligence with states than it was last year. People like Cortes are now in the process of getting security clearances. Election watchdog groups say they're encouraged by all these moves, especially Virginia's switch to new machines. But Susan Greenhalgh of Verified Voting says using paper ballots is only the first step. They need to be counted to detect tampering with the vote.

SUSAN GREENHALGH: We need to use them to audit the election results. It's like, we can have a seatbelt in our car, but unless we actually strap in, that seatbelt doesn't give us any safety.

FESSLER: Virginia plans to start conducting such post-election audits but not until after next year's election. In the meantime, Falls Church officials have a more immediate concern - informing voters who are used to casting their ballots electronically that they'll now have to use paper and pen. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.