Experts say Illinois' 2020 ballots will be safe but warn of 'antiquated equipment,' false information

Despite the June 2016 hack of Illinois' statewide voter registration database, the state is in a better position than some others to ensure the integrity of ballots in 2020, experts said Tuesday.

But those experts remain concerned about "robust" disinformation campaigns on social media designed to suppress voting in the election.

The advice came during testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security. Experts from the local, state and federal levels appeared before a special meeting of the committee in Gurnee hosted by U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood.

Committee members peppered the experts with questions about Illinois' efforts to beef up election security and what remains unfinished. The committee is considering adopting Illinois' model of a statewide cybersecurity program into a federal program.

Illinois' so-called Cyber Navigator Program provides technical support to local election authorities to guard against hacking.

Steve Sandvoss, the executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, said the program "must continue indefinitely" as two-thirds of Illinois' counties don't have the budget to support a dedicated IT staff to protect elections.

The Cyber Navigator Program combines with paper ballots or paper backup receipts in every Illinois county to ensure security on the front end and an auditable paper trail on the back end, Sandvoss said. Both are keys to the system integrity and making sure voters trust ballots are counted in the exact way they filled them out.

"I want to sound confident, but I don't want to sound overconfident," Sandvoss said. "We are doing everything we can do to make sure the elections are secure. But there's a threat. There are risks."

To further mitigate risks, experts said the country needs a $2.2 billion upgrade to "antiquated" voting systems. In Illinois, the cost would be about $175 million, depending on what federal officials mandate for voting equipment.

Democrats and Republicans are in a tug-of-war over what to require and how much the federal government should dictate to what is largely a local government function. Democratic legislation is pushing more toward paper ballot systems, while some Republican members of Congress, including Illinois' Rodney Davis, are in no rush to replace expensive electronic voting systems.

Eight states will have paperless voting systems for the 2020 election: Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, Tennessee and Texas, according to testimony by Elizabeth Howard, an attorney with New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. Howard said it will be impossible for those states to conduct "a robust postelection audit" of ballots cast by their residents.

Underwood and U.S. Rep. Sean Casten asked the panel about voter suppression efforts. Casten said he viewed the hack of Illinois' voter registration data as more of an effort to frustrate voting at polling places than alter any actual ballots.

There is no evidence any Illinois ballots were altered as a result of the registration data hack. All counties have their own registration data systems, and they exist independent of vote tabulation.

Matt Masterson, a senior cybersecurity adviser with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said all information points to the 2020 elections as a major target of "bad actors."

"They want to explore not only vulnerability in the systems but also create disinformation," he said.

All election authorities should be proactive in combating the disinformation, he said. To that end, Sandvoss said Illinois will launch a public-relations campaign to counteract any disinformation on social media regarding Illinois' elections.

  Mississippi U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, center, along with Vice Chairwoman and Rep. Lauren Underwood and Rep. Sean Casten, question a panel of experts during a public field hearing in Gurnee on Illinois election security Tuesday. Rick West/
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