Colorado Elections Director Is Confident The State’s Systems Are Well Defended

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Photo: Election Day 2016 Voting In Park Hill Denver (HV)
Voting at the Hiawatha David Jr. Rec. Center polling station in Denver's Park Hill neighborhood on Election Day 2016.

Russia is likely to meddle in this year's election. That's what intelligence officials told members of Congress Tuesday morning.

Colorado elections director Judd Choate tells Colorado Matters the state's in pretty good shape compared to the rest of the country, but that there are vulnerabilities here.

As NPR has reported:

"Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate intelligence committee that Moscow viewed its attack on the 2016 election as decidedly worthwhile given the chaos it has sown as compared to its relatively low cost.

"There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations," Coats said.

Judd Choate said he expects attacks but that Colorado is ahead of the game, having instituted double security firewalls on computer systems and retaining its own information technology staff rather than relying on a third-party vendor.

Looking ahead to Colorado's next election, the June 26 primary, Choate expects voter confusion to be a bigger issue that cybersecurity. The election will be Colorado's first "open" primary, meaning that unaffiliated voters can participate. Unaffiliateds can declare a preference for one party's ballot before the election. If they don't, they'll receive multiple ballots in the mail and have to pick which party's primary to vote in.

There are about 1.4 million unaffiliated voters in Colorado — more than those registered for either of the major political parties.

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Russia is likely to meddle in this year's election. That's what intelligence officials told members of Congress this morning. They could try to hack voting systems or influence outcomes through misinformation. So how's Colorado set up to protect itself? Well, a new report says the state's in pretty good shape compared to the rest of the country, but there are vulnerabilities here. Colorado's Elections Director is Judd Choate. He's on the line. Hi, Judd.

Judd Choate: Hi, Ryan.

RW: Right off the top, do you expect these kinds of attacks on the voting system in this country to
continue, and is Colorado's election system safe from them?

JC: Yes, we expect that they will continue. We receive dozens of scans of our systems on a daily basis. We've been pretty diligent about protecting ourselves for years now, and we feel pretty good
about our situation.

RW: When you say "scans," that's not an outright hack, but it's a sort of preliminary try. Is that right?

JC: Yeah, the way to think about it is it's basically a knock on the door. We choose not to open the door to every person who attempts to scan our system or knock on the door. We don't open it, so this is kind of a situation where we can be selective about those who enter our systems. We have double firewalls, so it gives us multiple opportunities to stop people that are trying to intrude.

RW: That said, I don't know that anybody would've predicted the extent of Russian interference in the last cycle. Is this a case of the protection's being awfully good or is it that we don't know what's about to hit us and you just can't prepare for the unknown?

JC: Well, you can prepare for the unknown, so the way you do that is you put up every barrier that you can realistically put up based on your understanding of the various cyber security possibilities or capabilities that your system can produce. That's what we do. We tried to be prepared for anything that could potentially hit us, and we are fortunate that we have an internal IT infrastructure with many very sophisticated people and systems, so we're able to defend our system in ways that perhaps other states aren't.

RW: In a way that other states aren't? That seems rather important, and it reflects a bit of this report that I mentioned a moment ago. It came from The Center for American Progress. It's a think tank, leans left, and they indeed rated all the states on election security. They give Colorado a grade of "B." I'll say no states got an "A" and they praised Colorado for its post-election audits, which are done to make sure the count is accurate, especially important in very close races. But they did ding you in a couple of places, particularly for allowing people who are registered in Colorado but live overseas to vote electronically. I understand that can be by email, fax. What's your response to that criticism?

JC: Well, it's a policy trade off. We're prepared to accept that risk in that we have people who are on mission in Cameroon or a person in the Peace Corps in Senegal. We also have members of the military who are under the ice sheet in the Arctic in submarines, and there really are no realistic ways to get them ballots or get those ballots returned within the window of time which is required in our election without using electronic means. And so we understand that that does create a vulnerability, but we then double down on protecting ourselves against that vulnerability. The Center for American Progress, you're correct in saying that they took some points off because of that, but it's a vulnerability we're willing to accept because we're willing to do the cyber security defense on the backend.

RW: How many voters does that represent, just for scale?

JC: Ah, 22,000 people voted electronically in the 2016 election, compared to 3.19 million who voted in that election for the entire state.

RW: How do you double down then, on the vulnerability you see there?

JC: Well, so we have created secure ballot return, which is a way that voters can upload their ballot to one particular website, that is sort of double protected through logins. And then the county can then log in to that system and pull down the ballets. So the way that most states do electronic ballot submission and return, is that they, the voter, votes that ballot and then sends it back to the county or sends it back to that jurisdiction across an email. We don't do that for the lion's share, the people that vote electronically in the state of Colorado, so we feel like that's a much better and much more protected way to transmit electronic ballots.

RW: You know, it strikes me that you can do everything to protect the voting system, but if misinformation in the run up to the vote is the tool, it doesn't matter. You could have all the security in the world. In other words, some things have already been breached, you know?

JC: Yeah. And there are certain things which are within our lane and things that we have some power over. And this information is one where we will struggle because that's not, I'm an elections official, I'm not in the media, I'm not a policy maker. And so, I have to do what I have in front of me, which is to do my very best to secure the system.

RW: Let's switch to a bit of a different topic now. The state's primary election is coming up June 26th, it'll be a completely different process than we've seen before. Until now, someone had to be registered with a political party to vote in a primary, and this year unaffiliated voters can pick a party and vote in its primary without changing their registration. So an entirely new system, perhaps a bunch of voters who aren't used to voting in party primaries, up to a million new people. Are you more concerned there about confusion or vulnerability?

JC: Well, I think that there will be some confusion. But for the lion's share of voters in Colorado, about 64 percent, 63 percent, of our voting population is identified with the Republican or Democratic party, so they're affiliated. So for them this election will look like every other state primary election. But for unaffiliated voters, if they haven't demonstrated a preference prior to the election, so if they haven't selected the receipt of one ballot or the other, which they can do by going online to govoteColorado, if they don't prefer a ballot ahead of the election, we're gonna send them both ballots. We're gonna send them a Democratic and a Republican ballot, and then they can vote one of those. They can't vote both of them, they can't choose races across the two ballots, they have to vote one of them. And if we receive both back but only one's voted, we'll count that one. But if we receive them both back, and they're both counted, we're not gonna be able to count those ballots, and unfortunately that will cause problems. So we're hoping that we can keep that down.

RW: It was news to me that you can login in advance and choose the ballot you want, I appreciate that
perspective. Judd, thanks so much for being with us.

JC: No problem, I'm happy to help.

RW: Judd Choate, he's director of elections in the Colorado Secretary of State's office. He also leads the National Association of State Election Directors. I'm Ryan Warner, this is CPR News.