Election Security Check: Chicago’s New Voting Machines

Illinois voters can begin casting ballots as soon as next week, though undecided voters need not worry: the election itself isn’t until March 17.

State and local officials took pains Monday to assure voters that whenever and however they cast their ballots in 2020, the process will be safe and secure.

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And in Chicago and suburban Cook, voters who don’t mail in their ballots will be using new machines.

“We strive to instill confidence in our elections which represent the bedrock of our government and the strength we project around the world,” said Marisel Hernandez, chair of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

Hernandez said Chicago’s elections board has fortified its online defenses with software that detects malware and minimizes phishing attempts, converted its website to a more secure .gov domain, and will use field investigators who will be in wards to respond to issues that may pop up.

Illinois ramped up its security efforts after its voter database was infiltrated by Russian hackers in 2016. Since then, it’s built up a team of cyber navigators who help to test and train election equipment.

“The Russians were here, the Russians never left and they’ll be with us leading up to this election,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat. “I believe what he (Russian President Vladimir Putin) was attempting to do was to attack the integrity of the democratic process and it only takes a little bit of hacking to accomplish that. To raise questions in the public’s mind.”

Quigley helped to secure $420 million in the current federal budget that’s been disbursed to elections authorities nationwide.

“That is … a fraction. The decimal point is in the wrong spot,” he said. “So it’s going to take the state’s and the local boards of elections’ vigilances and resources to make up that difference.”

The two new types of voting machines Chicago will roll out for the 2020 election cycle cost $21 million and are more secure, said Chicago elections board spokesman Jim Allen.

Most voters will still use paper ballots that will be scanned by new readers.

“The only things that the voters are going to notice is instead of connecting the arrow on the paper ballot, the head and the tail of the ballot, they’re going to be filling in the oval like they would on a standardized test,” he said.

Early in-person voters, those who are disabled or who require ballots in Spanish, Chinese or Hindi, will use new touch screens, which Allen described as looking like giant iPads.

“It’s a much more modern device,” he said. “You’re going to be making your selections, and then you’re going to print out your ballot and then you’re also going to feed that into a ballot scanner.”

A voter’s activity will be monitored and recorded.

“It scans the ballot as you’re entering it, as the voter. So there’s a record, there’s a scanned image of your ballot, so that even if later there were some kind of tampering or damage or loss of that ballot, there’s an image of every ballot that’s cast. And it also shows the logic that the scanner used to count, or not count, every mark on that so that you can go back, audit and actually correct if there was a mistake in reflecting what the voter’s intent was,” Allen said.

The news comes amid the revelation that last month, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s office found that more than 500 individuals who had indicated they were noncitizens when applying for a driver’s license were mistakenly registered to vote via Illinois’ Automatic Voter Registration program, or AVR.

Republicans have called on a pause in AVR while authorities get to the root of what went wrong, but White’s office and Gov. J.B. Pritzker say that’s not necessary, given that the programming glitch that caused the problem has been identified.

“Any problem that that may exist in our voter registration systems is an important one for us to focus on. This one of course is too,” Pritzker said.

After studying previous voter rolls, elections authorities suspect that some individuals may have mistakenly checked a box identifying themselves as noncitizens. Still unclear is whether a dozen individuals were noncitizens when they voted in 2018 and/or 2019; that includes two or three who cast ballots in Chicago.

There’s some question as to whether a noncitizen could be deported for having voted.

“We have to look through each one of these because intentionality matters,” Pritzker said in response to that question from a reporter Monday. “Somebody who’s trying to infiltrate the system as a registered voter who shouldn’t be is somebody who will be held responsible for that.”

The governor said he has not studied each of the cases, but it appears that most were “genuinely mistakes.”

The Illinois House executive committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on AVR on Thursday morning.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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