Hillsborough’s election chief confident in voting system but wary of cyber attacks

Published August 7
Updated August 7

TAMPA — Take one paper ballot marked "Test Deck," feed into voting machine, repeat 90 times.

That was the task for 21 workers Tuesday as they put voting equipment through its paces for the Aug. 28 primary election. In all, more than 3,000 dummy ballots were run through voting machines and high-speed optical scanners at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office on Falkenburg Road.

The test is required by law. But against the background of an ongoing FBI investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 General Election, Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer is also using the trial run to reassure the public about the integrity of the county’s voting system.

"It’s to ensure people know their vote is safe and secure, and that their vote is being counted accurately," Latimer said.

Florida was one of several states where elections systems were targeted by hackers in 2016, according to the Florida Department of State. Officials say those hacking attempts failed. Still, the department last week awarded $15.4 million in federal grants to 49 Florida elections offices to beef up cyber security.

Hillsborough’s share was $814,000. Latimer declined to give details on how the money would be spent.

"We have security measures in place and we’re putting more security in place to enhance what we already have to beef up both our cyber security and physical security of our building," he said.

The grants are based in part on the number of voters served. Pinellas County received $666,000 and $349,000 was awarded to Pasco County.

The most critical part of Hillsborough’s voting apparatus — the machines that scan and count ballots — are not connected to the Internet, Latimer said. Once tested, voting machines are locked down and stored under 24/7 video surveillance.

But other systems used for elections, including one that maintains voter rolls, are connected to the statewide voter registration database of the Florida Division of Elections and could be vulnerable.

The Hillsborough office conducts year-round training for workers to make sure they are aware of cyber hazards like "phishing" — emails that try to trick unsuspecting users into giving up passwords.

The federal government has made more resources available to boost cyber security since Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson declared in 2017 that the nation’s election infrastructure qualifies as a critical industry.

"We’ve got the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, National Guard and other people that are giving us all types of resources making sure our offices and safe and our elections are safe," Latimer said.

The test conducted Tuesday is like a mini-election night.

In the tabulation room, workers ran some 1,200 ballots through the high-speed optical scanners. The machines are used to process mail ballots and can count several thousand per minute.

That speed is needed. For the upcoming primary election, Hillsborough has mailed out more than 200,000 ballots.

In another area marked as the "Quiet Zone," close to where early voting takes place, 21 employees each fed 91 dummy ballots into voting machines. The totals counted by the machines are then compared to hand counts to validate the results.

The test Tuesday was verified by the election Canvassing Board.

Latimer said there seems to be less concern among voters about election integrity than in 2016, when he felt it necessary to print a flier titled, Let’s talk about safe and secure elections for staff and volunteers to give out at voting sites.

"I think the public is feeling better about it," Latimer said. "They realize there is security in place."

Hillsborough early voting

Who: Registered voters may vote at any early voting site.

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Sunday, Aug. 26.

Where: 19 locations, available at VoteHillsborough.org.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

   
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