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Illinois Moves Ahead With Voter Registration Modernization Despite Hacking Fears

Sarah Jesmer
DeKalb County Clerk and Recorder Doug Johnson stands in front of marked boxes that hold original paper ballots from the 2016 general election. Boxes are separated by precinct.

It started with a system glitch in the summer of 2016.

Hackers found a flaw in the online voting registration process in Illinois and exploited it. Illinois State Board of Election’s spokesperson Matt Dietrich said the board’s servers were flooded with queries, which are lines of code.

"After they had been in our system for two weeks without us knowing, they started flooding our system with queries. They did it in such a way that they were injecting five queries per second which led to our server slowing down to a crawl," Dietrich said.

This notified IT staff, but by then, it was too late. Hackers had already learned enough about the system to piece together the bits of encrypted voter information that they collected.

"It was not something where a layman would even understand what they were getting, you need to be a hacker to do it," he said.

It was determined that hackers had compromised the information of at least 76,000 people in Illinois. This includes names, addresses, driver’s license numbers, and partial social security numbers. While nothing was altered in the system, the board called it a “malicious cyberattack.” They notified the voters whose information was involved and advised them to report any suspicious activity.

"We did not have a single case of anyone reporting any problems like that. So that’s the good news from all this," Detrich said.

Two years later, the state has rejuvenated talks about this breach. A single, un-named state is mentioned in a federal indictment against Russian officials. The election boardreleased a statement last week that said the unnamed state is likely Illinois.

"It would’ve been disingenuous for us to come out on Friday and say ‘Oh we really don’t know if it’s us because were not named in it, we really don’t know.’ We do know that our episode happened in July of 2016 which is what’s named in the indictment," said Dietrich.

Credit Sarah Jesmer
Voter registration cards in the DeKalb County Government office in Sycamore, IL. County Clerk and Recorder Doug Johnson says he prefers having both paper and digital copies of records like this.

$13.2 million in federal funding has been given to state officials to strengthen its election security, says Dietrich. At least half will go to a new security network, technician consulting and security training- called the CyberNavigator system. Around $1.2 million will go to hiring a cyber security expert for the state, said Dietrich.

The money left over is intended for local jurisdictions through state grants for whatever officials need. Dietrich says areas with the most voters are the distribution priority, even if 100 percent of a jurisdiction’s population is registered to vote. What will matter is total number of registered voters in a county.

"Under the budget, it did say the funds should be distributed equally so were going to have to get a legal determination about what that means but were pretty sure it will be distributed based on a formula that takes into account the number of registered voters in a jurisdiction," he said.

Dietrich says jurisdictions should not only run elections, but proactively guard data from future hacks.

"They could go for the weakest link in the system in Illinois. They could go for some of the less populated counties where they have very small county governments where they might not have an extensive IT department. They likely will try to exploit any weak link in our system," said Dietrich. 

From the outside, it looks like big changes are coming to voting in Illinois. In local jurisdictions like DeKalb County though, not much will change, say officials.

DeKalb Clerk and Recorder Doug Johnson is confident that the county has already been doing an exceptional job in database management and security practices.

"The ultimate one that I always want people know in DeKalb County is that we use paper ballots. And ultimately, if there was ever a problem, we would take those paper ballots and hand count them with humans," said Johnson.

Mid-term elections are on Nov. 6 this year. Johnson said he thinks hackers mainly wanted to plant doubt in the voters mind that democracy is flawed.

"The nature of the things that are going in the country right now with the election systems and everything it seems like there are outside forces that are trying to make people in the United States lose confidence in their election process loose confidence in their leaders and everything else. My experience in the military has taught me that is a very Russian style of influence that is coming in," said Johnson.

Youth will be a focus of the upcoming elections, and Johnson hopes they’re not deterred to vote. Youth have led political movements nationwide. DeKalb High School graduate Lizzy Warner organized a walk-out at the high school last spring in response to the shooting in Parkland, Florida.

"That’s what I think my main goal was, to not let people go forgotten and to make sure we as youth know that we still have a voice even though the older generations are constantly babying us and treating us like children and putting us down," she said.

Warner, 18, says she’s not registered to vote, but plans to before the mid-term elections. Hacking or not, she says it’s still important to participate.

"I’m still going to continue to vote and push other people to vote because even though this can happen it doesn’t mean it’s always going to happen and it doesn’t always mean it’ll affect you," said Warner.

Richie Spahn, 18, is also a recent DeKalb High School graduate. He attended the walk-out that Warner organized. He hopes to vote for the first time this fall via absentee ballot.

"Our voice is the voice of the people, and the voice that really makes decisions in this country," said Spahn about the power behind a vote and public opinion.

Spahn said he has a pretty clear idea of which candidates he'd like to support. 

"[Database hacking] doesn’t make me doubt democracy as a whole. I think it’s more of a security issue," he said. 

Both Spahn and Warner said they think Russian hacking in Illinois is not discussed enough.

"I don’t know how to feel just because no one’s really reacting to it and I haven’t really heard a lot about it either and this should be a really large talking point right now and I don’t have a lot of knowledge about it even though I’ve been trying to research it a little bit," said Warner.

Illinois’ new automatic voter registration system is now active. It centralizes the voting information database. Officials hope it will create more accurate voter records. Dietrich says that increased digitization is inevitable, and threats of hacking shouldn’t stop growth.

In an online world, there’s always a risk, said Dietrich.

"We believe we are employing industry best standards best practices with our cyber security and we still believe that but whenever you’re dealing with cyber security what you’re trying to do is stay a step ahead of the hackers because it’s a constant, constant race. And that’s not going to change," Dietrich said.

In a tweet on Tuesday, Governor Bruce Rauner said “Putin and Russia are not our friends and the president should focus on holding them accountable.” 

Officials prepare for modernization efforts

Some may blame new technology for hacking into Illinois’ voting database. 

Automatic voter registration is now in effect in Illinois as of July 1.Governor Bruce Rauner signed the system into law back in Aug. 2017.

That means registration is now offered at more places than just the DMV.  The system also allows people to move counties without having to re-register.

Illinois State Board of Elections spokesperson Matt Dietrich said voting databases will be more accurate and updated with the shift away from paper rolls.

"County clerks put a lot of effort into maintaining accurate voter rolls--it’s required by federal law that they do so. We believe that automatic voter registration is going to be a big, big help in keeping those rolls current and accurate," he said.

Dietrich said the board spent $15,000 on this software. The Illinois Secretary of State spent nearly $300,000 on 850 signature pads that will be used by local departments around the state. Officials say the hardware will be used to add people to the AVR system.

Illinois wants to see more people registered and at the polls.

"We think there are about two million who are eligible to vote but are not registered in Illinois, for whatever reason," he said.

According to Dietrich, nearly 12,000 people have been added to the voting system since July 2. That includes some new voters and some updates to already registered voters. But it's still to early to know if the law will actually increase turnout.

"We think that just the fact that you have received that card in the mail is gonna be a reminder to people who have been inactive until now and who have not taken the time to register," Dietrich said.

Younger voters are gearing up to cast their first vote now that they’re 18. Recent DeKalb High School graduate Richie Spahn says he is not yet registered to vote in Illinois. He says he plans to though before the upcoming mid-term election. Spahn says his political involvement is important, especially since he’s part of the LGBT community.

"I think topics that have to do with equal rights like racial topics and topics that have to do with sexuality, really opened my eyes, especially for me, you know," said Spahn.

Lizzy Warner, 18, who recently organized the walkoutat her high school, said she first started being politically active during her sophomore year.

"Hundreds of people came out. So that alone should show the youth that no matter who you are, you do have a voice and you can use it to change things, because a lot of people got politically active after that," she said.

Warner says she will register soon.

"I definitely have an idea of what I’m looking for in a candidate because I want to do a lot of research before I go into it," Warner said.

Spahn and Warner will register in DeKalb County.

DeKalb County Clerk and Recorder Doug Johnson says human verification and paper records will stay the county standard, despite any software updates.

Credit Sarah Jesmer
Voter registration cards in the DeKalb County Government office in Sycamore, IL. County Clerk and Recorder Doug Johnson says he prefers having both paper and digital copies of records like this.

"We're still checking everything like always. We're not going to allow somebody to throw people into our system without us checking," said Johnson.

In DeKalb, like many counties, the mail-in process for registration will be eliminated. Johnson says he thinks voting convenience is what is important, not registration convenience. 

"It will have the effect of probably getting more people registered, but will that help voter turnout? Historically I would say just because you have a lot of people registered to vote doesn’t mean they’ll turnout to vote. I think the issues, the candidates, and the convenience of voting is what affects voter turnout," he said.  

Stacey Bixby, executive director for the Rockford Board of Elections, is confident that Winnebago County’s voter database is accurate and secure. She said the law adoption doesn’t mean big change other than getting rid of hard copies.

"No, I don’t anticipate that there will be any change in our process," she said.

Earlier this week, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed legislation that would have gotten the state out of a controversial voter identification program. The Interstate Crosscheck System is meant to weed out voters who are double registered.

But it brings with it additional security concerns. Rauner dismissed those concerns, saying they are politically motivated.

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