Officials: hacked minds more of an election risk than machines

A panel of elected officials discuss voting integrity June 10 at Wild Prairie Event Center. Pictured, from left, are David Thorne, Commissioners Randy Hague, George ‘Chip’ Westfall and Don Schroeder, state Rep. Stephen Owens and Clerk Rick Piepho.

By Blake Spurney

NEWTON—About 200 people learned about security and the software and hardware that is used in elections Thursday evening at a forum put on by the Conservative Women’s Forum of Harvey County.

In response to moderator Sharon Skidmore’s question about the greatest risks facing elections, Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho said it was the “hacking of everyone’s minds,” which he noted put a distrust in the process.

“There’s no proof, evidence that votes were changed, at least I would say,” he said.

Harvey County Commission Chairman George “Chip” Westfall said Piepho was very involved in keeping up with election laws and worked with other clerks to train election workers.

David Thorne, chairman of the Republican Party of Sedgwick County and chief executive officer of Plain Solutions LLC, said hacking of an election system was extremely rare.

“It just doesn’t happen,” he said.

Thorne received loud applause when he asked if people were excited by the state’s voter ID law. He said Kansas was one of the leading states in that, which he said saved the state from other issues.

Thorne explained the difference between single- and dual-system voting machines. He said a lot of states went to double systems, which create a backup copy of the ballot. He also said the biggest threat came from single system machines and that every county had to be vigilant about future threats.

Thorne said problems with voting arise when processes get disrupted by people, not by machines. He said he ran teams of people who try to break voting machines. That is done as part of the certification process for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. He said EAC was the federal standard. He said one manufacturer of voting machines had its certification pulled after it added a flash drive to its software, which is a violation of EAC rules.

Piepho said the county was spending $270,000 this year on new voting equipment. He said the county had been using the same equipment since 2006.

“I feel secure in our election equipment and our process,” he said. “If I didn’t, we would have changed our equipment a long time ago.”

Piepho said a state law required counties to use voting machines that are certified by both the EAC and the state. Kansas also requires the machines not to have a modem or to connect to the Internet. He said the new equipment hadn’t been purchased because the machines hadn’t yet been certified by the state.

Skidmore said the forum was done to address election integrity, because it was a big concern across the county. She said comments her group was getting came from people concerned that their vote didn’t count. Others have been asking what they could do to help because they want to do something. She referenced a report from the Amistad Project, a conservative organization, claiming that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg tried to influence the last election. She asked Piepho why he applied for a grant with the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is supported by Zuckerberg, and asked if there were any preconditions for using the $67,000 the county received.

Piepho said there were not conditions placed on the money and that most of it went toward COVID-19-related expenses. He said he bought a ballot-scanning device costing $18,000. He said CTCL never asked for invoices.

Skidmore asked the panel about maintaining security in a polling place. She said former state Rep. Tim Hodge walked into a polling place two years ago.

Piepho said he heard from a supervising judge that Hodge was not helping voters. Any candidate who does that is committing a crime, and if that’s the case, police should have been called, he said.

Westfall said a poll worker called him about the situation and described how a poll worker had had Hodge leave. He noted that there were 300 provisional ballots in the last election. If a poll worker thinks something is amiss, her or she will have a voter fill out a provisional ballot, and those reports are sent to Piepho at the end of each day.

“That is the number one line of defense,” Westfall said.

Thorne said people were a big part of the problem when laws were broken. He said he would classify what he heard about it as election fraud.

Skidmore said some voters wanted paper ballots to be counted by hand, even if it took longer to get results.

Piepho said he couldn’t imagine counting ballots by hand like the way it used to be done. He said that way of tallying votes had proven to be the least accurate way. He said his office had to count votes based on voter intent. When that intent is not clear for a particular race, then that vote isn’t counted. He said a precinct is randomly selected by the state during every election, and staff have to count it by hand. This test is done to verify machine accuracy. Of the last three elections, two of the hand counts matched up, and one was off by one vote because of the way the ballot was marked, he added.

Thorne said he didn’t trust the human part as much as he did machines.

State Rep. Stephen Owens provided an update on two bills enacted after the Kansas Legislature overrode Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes. House Bill 2183 prohibits ballot harvesting and makes it unlawful to alter a postmark on a mail-in ballot. House Bill 2332 prohibits the governor from modifying election laws via executive order and requires the county election office to maintain a residential and mailing address for each registered voter. It also expands the crime of election tampering.

Skidmore asked how the results of an election were determined so quickly if machines had no Internet connection.

Piepho said Kansas allowed his office to open advanced ballots before the close of polls. He said a certain amount had to be remain closed until after polls close. He said his office began counting votes at 1 p.m. He invited those in attendance to attend a public test of voting machines, which he is required to hold before elections. He said he couldn’t remember the last time someone showed up for it.

“We thoroughly test the machines before they go anywhere, make sure they have zero votes on them,” he said.

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