Last month, Radford’s General Registrar and Director of Elections Tracy D. Howard, was invited to speak to the U.S. Congressional committee regarding serious and on-going cybersecurity threats to U.S. elections. Congress failed to act, but Howard says local officials and a knowledgeable, engaged voters are the real key to protecting democracy.
Howard served as a rural voice in the federal discussion describing the needs of state and local election officials for funds and training.
He testified that, as the state president of the Virginia Voter Registrar Association in 2016, he was well aware there had been attempted interference and infiltration of the Virginia Election and Registration Information system (VERIS), the system used to maintain voter registration lists.
“I said “attempted,” because unlike Florida, Illinois, and now we know Arizona, Virginia’s system was pinged, and hit, but not infiltrated,” said Howard.
Local elections, he said, are indeed being targeted because the hackers know that the weak links are always the people who operate the systems, and in July, many registrars’ offices were hit with a “teaser,” e-mail attempting to elicit individuals into communicating with the perpetrators to glean information.
“So, yes, it is widespread and ongoing,” Howard told the panel.
To the panel, he recommended that the best way to prevent infiltration is to support continued training of the operators to recognize, avoid and report suspicious events. Also needed, he said, are cyber experts locally for immediate response and mitigation.
Asked what citizens can do to help protect democracy, Howard was candid.
“Wow, where to begin?” he said. “Most importantly, vote. Ensure your registration info is up to date before Election Day. November 5 is too late. Check ELECTs online portal, give your local Elections office a call. Take your ID, know the candidates, and vote with the confidence that even if the technology breaks, we will count every vote cast in the way it was intended.”
Critically, he urged voters not to fall for online efforts to stir up discord and alienation.
“Stop buying into the division that is being sown. Ninety percent of the people around us are somewhere in the middle. Be wary of the five percent on either extreme, using single issues and overly inflated inflammatory rhetoric.”
Be computer savvy and civil online, he urges.
“Don’t Like or share everything you see on social media, that really does give the bad actors around the world an insight into your likes and your dislikes, and the issues which are most inflammatory to you.
It is with that information bad actors will continue to sow the seeds of discourse, Howard said.
“Discourse devolves very quickly on the perceived anonymity of the Internet,” he said.
“When they find an issue that starts a fire, it won’t be long before these trolls from Russia begin throwing on the gasoline.”
Voter engagement is key. On Election Day, he urges patience with the Officers of Election.
“They are not government bureaucrats, they are your neighbors doing a public service. If you have an issue call us, we’ll get to the bottom of it,” he said.
While, Congress failed to act on the panel’s testimony calling for support for local and state elections officials, Howard feels Congress is well aware of the urgency of the threat and may work together to fight this threat to democracy.
“Truthfully, the way Congress works is, in many ways theatrical, but the behind the scenes work is on-going I believe. I gathered that there is a bi-partisan effort to compromise and come to consensus on election security,” he said.
From the outside, he said, division within the capital seems insurmountable, but Congress knows the extent of the 2016 interference, even more so than election officials, Howard suspects.
“I am still hopeful that a genuine partnership between the federal and state governments can be reached in time to further the necessary high tech protections needed.”
Shortly after the panel hearing, in its annual conference, Voter Registrars Association of
“We discussed issues that have arisen in elections in recent years, expedited felon restorations and how our offices handle that,” Howard said.
The officials discussed presentations to local governments and their fiduciary responsibilities to their citizens to ensure open elections, how to speak to elected officials.
Overall, individual citizens must become, by November, more discerning consumers of online information.
“Get your news from sources such as the Associated Press, legitimate newspapers, and the most unbiased sources you can find,” recommends Howard. “Think twice about sources used by other individuals that simply push or foster an agenda, Check the page transparency of Facebook “sources”.
Just scrolling through Facebook you’ll see shared items from sources in Ukraine, Kosovo, Serbia, Georgia, and other former Soviet bloc nation states. These sites seem innocuous, but very often they are “Like” farming, the “Likes and Shares” they lead these people to tailor the kind of disinformation that they believe will incense their targets, sowing more discontent.”