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Election Day

Residents vote Nov. 8, 2016 at the Mills Community Center. Wyoming's secretary of state is confident in Wyoming's election security, despite widespread concerns about foreign interference in this year's upcoming midterms. 

File, Star-Tribune

CHEYENNE — Wyoming’s secretary of state is confident in the security of the state’s election systems amid widespread national concerns of foreign interference in 2018’s midterms.

In addition to the general tumultuous nature of the 2016 election, the Department of Homeland Security heightened concerns about possible interference in election systems when it reported 21 states were the targets of foreign nation-state meddling.

President Donald Trump met with top figures in his administration Thursday to discuss measures aimed at protecting states’ election systems.

In Cheyenne last week, lawmakers, as part of the National Conference of State Legislatures, held a meeting on election security. Representatives from the Defending Digital Democracy Project told legislators during that meeting that rural states such as Wyoming could be seen as vulnerable and meaningful targets for nefarious actors looking to disrupt the democratic process.

Wyoming, the least-populated state in the U.S., might not seem like the most appealing target for those looking to interfere in or undermine elections. But Caitlin Conley, Defending Digital Democracy Project executive director, told lawmakers that successfully interfering in Wyoming’s elections could undermine confidence in the democratic process across the nation. In some rural counties the project’s representatives had visited—not including any in Wyoming—Conley said they’d heard clerks say no one would bother interfering in their elections.

“And we tell them, ‘It doesn’t matter;’ this matters for everyone,” Conley said.

Secretary of State Ed Buchanan said it’s a valid point to consider that bad actors might look at a state like Wyoming and think it has weak points in terms of security precautions. But he said Wyoming has been vigilant in protecting the integrity of its voting systems, including launching a task force in 2017 to look at aging voting equipment in the state.

Being a rural state, Buchanan argued, could also be an advantage.

“Because of our smaller population and the rural nature of the state, it would be much more easily noticeable,” he said. “Because we also recognize what’s happened in other states, we are constantly looking at our systems, every piece of them, and taking nothing for granted. With the task force, with bringing on new equipment, we’re trying to be very proactive so those concerns never come to fruition. We don’t rest on our laurels. We don’t assume it can’t happen here.”

No internet connection

Following last week’s election security meeting, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Chey-enne, spoke with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle about his concerns on the matter. Zwontizer said the presentation brought home why it’s important for Wyoming to be as vigilant as more densely populated areas of the country.

In response to a question about worst-case scenarios, Zwontizer said having a rural county with “outdated voting equipment that’s still connected to the internet is probably the most susceptible place.”

On Friday, Zwontizer said he did not mean on April 26 that any Wyoming precincts still had voting equipment hooked up to the internet in a potential security lapse. He only described it as a hypothetical bad situation for the state to end up in, Zwonitzer said.

Kai Schon, Wyoming’s election director, said this week he wanted to assure Wyoming residents that the state’s voting equipment is not hooked up to the internet.

“Voting systems, voting equipment where you tabulate votes, is not connected to the internet or to one another; they’re air-gapped,” Schon said. “In Wyoming, we require federal certification of all our voting systems, which is administered by the (U.S.) Election Assistance Commission. And part of their guidelines and requirements is that systems cannot be connected to the internet. So we require that certification, as do roughly 40 other states.”

Does the grade fit?

Schon said the state has “done a tremendous job” protecting its elections and has a “great historical record of that.” He pointed to training that involved security issues for all of the state’s 23 county clerks and their election staff.

“That involves all kinds of security measures that we talk through, from user access to letting them know about various things available to them that are free now because of elections being designated as critical infrastructure,” Schon said. “We’ll be visiting within the next couple of weeks with our (Department of Homeland Security) contacts, with our state and federal contacts, to reiterate a lot of those messages so we can be best prepared.”

A report from the Center for American Progress—a liberal advocacy organization founded by John Podesta, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations—graded states on election security. Wyoming was one of 23 states that received a “C” grade, with post-election audits and ballot accounting cited as areas of concern.

But Will Dinneen, communications officer in the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office, said surveys of this type ask the same questions of all 50 states, potentially leaving out particulars in a way that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“It assumes this one-size-fits-all survey will fit one-size-fits-all systems, as if we have some sort of centralized election system that can be cross-compared between states, and that’s not really the case,” Dinneen said.

“Part of the security of American elections and Wyoming elections comes from the fact that each state has a system that fits best with its population, its people, its region and its geography. That survey doesn’t take that into account.”

Remaining vigilant

The secretary of state’s office hopes its efforts give confidence to Wyoming’s voters, Dinneen said. It’s all an ongoing process that never stops, he said.

“It’s not as if three months before an election we wake up and decide it’s time for an election,” he said. “It’s a full-year process every year to maintain election equipment, maintain security and make sure our state is ready for the next election cycle.”

Schon said that while Wyoming has remained vigilant, and he doesn’t think there are any glaring vulnerabilities, it would be naïve to assume any election system couldn’t be a target for bad actors. But he said he’s confident the stewards of the state’s elections—its 23 county clerks—are dedicated and up to the task.

“They are incredibly vigilant with the process; with their poll workers they train, they’re very intentional with that process,” Schon said. “Elections are run at the local level and they take that incredibly seriously, from transparency to security to uniformity, all of that.”

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