POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

NJ Secretary of State says election security is a ‘race without a finish line’

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Ahead of November’s midterm elections, there’s word that the state will spend more than $10 million dollars to shore up election security.  That means securing voter registration information, the voting machines themselves, boosting cyber-security and piloting voting machines that create a paper trail. Secretary of State Tahesha Way joins Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.

Aron: Madame Secretary, thanks for coming in.

Way: Thanks for having me, Michael.

Aron: You announced last Friday that of $380 million that Congress had appropriated for election security, New Jersey was getting roughly $10 million of that and putting another half million of our own in. How is that money going to be spent?

Way: Well, let me just start with this. The HAVA [Help America Vote Act] dollars, which were announced, were the remainder of the dollars from 2002 — the HAVA money. So, what took into effect was our voter population formula, and that gave the estimated $10 million, which would be allocated now. What I have done, and additionally, my staff — what we have done — throughout the various months, we have consulted with local election officials; we’ve also consulted with our federal partners; and, my colleagues, for best practices, attending various cyber-security trainings, so that we can somehow reach this narrative and formulate it in a measured way. Because, as you’re aware, the threat is real. But, at this time, it’s also a crisis of chaos, and also trying to attack our confidence in our election process. So, one of my top priorities — and I know it is the top priority of our governor, who wants to build the stronger and fairer New Jersey. So, in formulating our HAVA budget, we took that, too, into consideration. Stronger, meaning enhancing our electoral systems; and fairer, meaning, to provide our residents election integrity. Now, with all that being said, there were eight categories to do that, which we took into consideration. The primary one, of course, would be cybersecurity. We also look to enhance our voter equipment. There’s physical security, training; ADA enhancements, if you will. Communication enhancements, just to name a few.

Aron: Let me stop you there. You talk about the equipment. From delving into the subject a little bit in anticipation of this interview, there’s an awful lot of pressure to go to an optical scanner machine that creates a paper trail. We don’t have that in New Jersey, we have touch screens. How aware of this deep concern are you?

Way: Well, I think that we first have to start with a premise, that to our knowledge, we have never been made aware of any election security breaches here in New Jersey. I also want to say that aside from a paper trail voter system, which we actually have in play with our pilot program — and I can get into that in a few moments — I just want to explain that we do undergo the pre-testing and post-testing of our election equipment. There are daily scans. We actually partner with federal entities — if we want to call them, the MS-ISAC [Multi-State Information and Analysis Sharing Center] — that monitor and also are aware of any incidents.

Aron: But, are we okay without a paper trail? Apparently, according to a congressional Democratic study, we’re one of the five most vulnerable states because we don’t produce a paper trail out of these touch screen machines. From where you sit, are we okay?

Way: Well, this time of cybersecurity concerns, I have to say, is a race without a finish line. We have to be vigilant, and we have to be various steps ahead. So, what we decided to do, because I am of a belief that one needs to be measured in any sort of roll-out of programs — we decided to do a pilot program with the 21 counties, and we will grant them various dollars in accordance to their registered voter population, and they then can go out for the bidding process, and either lease, or they can buy, various machines. And, I also want to mention — and this is significant — that if the county decides to participate in this pilot program, part of our HAVA budget dollars is allocated, they have to also participate in a post-election audit.

Aron: So, bottom line, how confident are you that we are going to have a fair and straight-up election in New Jersey this November.

Way: Again, this is a race without a finish line, and I do want to say that there is confidence; I think which is important. And this is part of good government, in my eyes, is a collaboration on all fronts, as I had mentioned initially. Not only is it the state participating in this cybersecurity effort, we partner — and I partner on the local side — with Director Jared Mapleswho is with the Department of Homeland Security.

Aron: The Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.

Way: Exactly. And also, we have through them New Jersey CCIC, NJCCIC [NJ Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell]. Which, similar to the MS-ISAC and also the election ISAC, they alert entities of any incidents. There’s the daily monitoring that goes on so that there can be that confidence. And, also partnering with Homeland Security, our local Homeland Security. We are actually going to have one of their employees, who is going to be the cyber expert, who will go in to the counties. And he and his staff are going to liaise — perform risk vulnerability assessments on their systems, and also on their election facilities. This is very important, because our system, the SVRS [Statewide Voter Registration System], is a top-down model. Everyone needs to understand that. Yes, we have the state. But, our system has the “tentacles” into the counties, so they need to be brought up to speed, too, on all of the cybersecurity protocols and efforts that are out there. And another fine point in our narrative, which I think is important — I had mentioned initially in our conversation — that what is happening is a shattering of confidence and chaos being created. You’re aware of all of the fake news, social media —

Aron: Just yesterday, the DNC was hacked again. I don’t know if you saw that story.

Way: Yes I did.

Aron: Somebody did try to hack it. But, make your point.

Way: Yes. I wanted to say that we are actually — we imparted in our HAVA narrative a voter-verified app. So, if a voter is confronted with a “social” or “fake news,” they understand that they could consult, potentially, to our app. Which, is going to lead them, let’s say, to the proper polling place; to the proper dates, in which they would have to register by to vote and the like. So, I think that all of this information, I think which also significant and important, is the training that we’re going to have for our locals. We’ll also have poll workers getting trained, because of course, they’re the ones who are minding the ship on election day. So, they will actually be brought up to speed with all of the cybersecurity protocols, that’s needed on an online basis.

Aron: Alright, Secretary of State Tahesha Way. Thanks for explaining it all to us.

Way: Well, thank you for having me, Michael.