As details emerge of the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election, officials in Maryland are working to protect the state’s voting system for this year and beyond.
State elections officials are working with federal authorities to shore up Maryland’s defenses against tampering with electronic voting systems and electoral rolls. Lawmakers have introduced proposals to fix perceived flaws, audit results more rigorously and to compel greater disclosures about advertising on social media.
Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has accused 13 Russians in a massive and covert trolling campaign to widen social and political fissures in the United States and disrupt the 2016 election. In the federal indictment this month, prosecutors said the effort was aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The indictment identified a social media account named “Blacktivist” on the photo-sharing site Instagram as a Russian troll. A Facebook account of the same name had attempted to promote a rally in Baltimore on the anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray. More than 250 of the Russia-linked ads that Facebook turned over to Congress last fall targeted social media users in Maryland. And the Department of Homeland Security has said Russian hackers took at least one run at Maryland’s computerized voter registration system during the 2016 election cycle.
Marylanders will vote this year for a governor and members of Congress. The nation’s intelligence chiefs told the Senate this month that Russia remains at work to interfere with the midterm elections.
Maryland elections administrator Linda Lamone assured state lawmakers this month that the State Board of Elections is on top of the challenges. She told the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee that she had met with U.S. intelligence agencies and would be given a security clearance that would allow her access to the most sensitive information.
“Both the federal government and us are taking this very, very seriously,” she said. “Everybody’s working as a team.”
Lamone said Maryland’s online data is all encrypted and monitored 24/7. The systems have multiple layers of protection, officials say, and the most sensitive parts are not connected to the Internet.
Assessments of Maryland’s preparedness differ.
In a nationwide report this month, the Washington-based Center for America Progress gave the state a B, the highest grade it awarded. The liberal think tank praised the use of paper ballots and optical scanners, which allow officials to create a verifiable trail should the vote be questioned. It gave the state solid marks for its ballot-counting and its certification and testing of voting machines.
The center found Maryland’s procedures for conducting post-election audits deficient.
“Its failure to carry out post-election audits that test the accuracy of election outcomes leaves the state open to undetected hacking and other Election Day problems,” the center said. It criticized Maryland for conducting post-election audits electronically rather than by hand.
“Perhaps most troublesome is the fact that the results of an audit cannot reverse the preliminary outcome of an audited contest if an error is detected,” the center said.
Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator of the state elections board, says precinct-level processes make hand audits impractical.
She says post-election electronic tabulations are made by a contractor to identify polling places where there might have been problems. If the electronic retabulation finds a discrepancy, she says, election officials will go to the original ballots for a hand count that can be used to change results.
Poorvi Vora, a professor of computer science at George Washington University, says Maryland is among the worst of the 50 states in securing absentee ballots.
The state allows voters to request absentee ballots through its web site and mark them online before mailing them in. That function is part of the system that allows voters to register online.
It’s also the system that hackers probed in August 2016. Charlson said they did not breach it.
Vora worries that hackers could use the system to request multiple absentee ballots using multiple identities.
“It would be crazy for Maryland to continue with its absentee ballot delivery after the indictment,” she said. She’s concerned that the state wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the real requests and the fake, causing chaos when voters showed up at the polls.
Vora says she and other computer scientists have repeatedly raised concerns with the State Board of Elections.
“They listen to me, they ask questions, seem to understand the problems,” she said. “Then, nothing.”
Charlson says the state has mechanisms to detect a spate of fraudulent requests for absentee ballots. Among them, she said, would be the voters themselves, showing up at polling places to vote after absentee ballots had been fraudulently ordered in their names.
“Early voting gives us an early window into if this situation happens,” she said.
Markus Rauschecker, cybersecurity director at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security, says all election systems face a significant threat.
“It’s a tremendous concern in my view,” he said.
The threat is not just that hackers would try to reverse the results of an election, he says, but also that they would try to bring about widespread disruption of the voting process.
“The chaos would be just as problematic, because it would put into jeopardy the legitimacy of the election process,” he said. “The likelihood of that happening versus changing the votes is much greater.”
State lawmakers are considering several bills.
Del. Alonzo Washington, the Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the House Ways & Means subcommittee on election law, would restrict the use of the electronic system for marking absentee ballots to the disabled and overseas and military voters. The technology is supported by advocates for the blind, but computer analysts consider it a vulnerability.
Another Washington bill would require the elections board to report any security incidents to the legislature within seven days. He said lawmakers didn’t learn about the 2016 hacking attempt until seven months later.
A third bill would impose strict reporting requirements on online political advertising, particularly when it comes from foreign sources or is paid for in foreign currency.
“We are doing the best we can in the state of Maryland, but there can be fixes,” Washington said. “We’re going to get something done this year — absolutely.”
Del. Anne Kaiser, who chairs the Ways & Means Committee, is sponsoring a bill that would beef up auditing of Maryland elections
Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller took to the floor Wednesday — something he does only rarely — to speak against a committee-approved bill setting up procedures for foreign delegations to observe elections in Maryland.
The measure had drawn fire from Republicans. Miller, a Democrat, agreed it was a bad idea.
"Our electoral processes were attacked," Miller said. "We need to make sure nothing like this happens again."
The measure was sent back to committee, almost certainly killing it.