Although Mississippi’s voting systems are relatively safe from internet hacks, state election officials are becoming increasingly vigilant about security.
Among them is U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, who has urged the state’s elections chief, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, and his counterparts nationwide to step up protections against hackers in anticipation of the Nov. 8 election.
“I think we have to be proactive in making sure that our system of electing our leaders is not compromised by a foreign government or foreign actors,’’ Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, told the Clarion-Ledger’s Washington D.C. bureau in early September.
Individual voting machines aren’t likely to be compromised. That’s because the state’s county-operated voting machines are not connected to the internet and cannot be breached except in person – one machine at a time.
Seventy-eight of Mississippi’s 82 counties use touchscreen voting machines, systems approved and paid for by Congress in 2002 when it passed the Help America Vote Act. The act gained support after the 2000 presidential election when hanging chads and butterfly ballots raised public scrutiny about the punch card voting system used in Florida where the razor-thin margin sent the vote to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Four Mississippi counties use paper ballots read by scanners or a combination of touchscreens and scanners, although all the touchscreen counties use scanners to process, scan and count absentee ballots, emergency ballots, curbside ballots and affidavit ballots, the Secretary of State’s Office notes.
However, electronic databases are more vulnerable, experts say. Questions about Mississippi’s voting systems came into focus recently after the Illinois election roll was breached, accessing information about 90,000 of its voters.
“Our Statewide Election Management System (SEMS) … is live-monitored daily by a third-party Mississippi security company,” said Hosemann, whose agency operates the system, a database housing all the state’s voter registration information.
While it’s not immune to hacking, Hosemann said via emails in response to Mississippi Today questions, “it is very secure,” despite the nearly 4,000 hacking attempts during the month of September. About 5,000 attempts occurred in August.
None was successful, he said.
But the agency is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to use the federal agency’s cyber-security tools for defense.
Local officials say voters casting ballots in local precincts have little to worry about when it comes to the integrity of their ballots.
“We have so many safeguards in place,” said Roger Graves, longtime Pike County circuit clerk. Circuit clerks oversee state and federal elections in each county.
Graves said the main reason he doesn’t expect his county’s 90 or so touchscreen voting machines to be hacked is that a perpetrator would have to break into each one, which is an independent machine not connected to the internet
He anticipates that 70 to 75 percent of Pike County’s 22,000 registered voters will show up at the polls Nov. 8.
Hosemann agrees with Graves: Hacking into the local machines – which he describes as “individual calculators” – would require physical access to each machine, “making hacking them implausible.”
But cyber-security expert Dr. David Dampier at Mississippi State University advises that any computer that tabulates data is vulnerable, if it’s connected to the internet.
“Can it be protected?” he asks. “Yes, as much as any computer connected to the internet.”
He called the state’s Information Technology Services, which monitors many state government computer systems, “very vigilant and very competent.”
Secretary of State spokesperson Leah Rupp Smith said that in advance of the Nov. 8 vote, the state agency has put additional security in place recommended by Homeland Security.