Gorbea: 4 safety measures ensure RI vote count will be correct

Before the polls opened at an Atwells Avenue location on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. (WPRI/ Rosie Woods)
Before the polls opened at an Atwells Avenue location on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. (WPRI/ Rosie Woods)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Seeking to allay any concerns about the security of next week’s election, the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office said it has equipped its new ballot tabulator machines with four different ways to store vote totals in order to verify the accuracy of the count.

“I think that any election system needs to have multiple redundancies for safety and security and that is what our system has,” said Secretary of State Nelllie Gorbea. “There’s not any one process that can’t be tampered with, but you can safeguard against that by having four different ways in which the votes are stored.”

Each machine has the following four safeguards, Gorbea said:

  • a wireless modem with a double encrypted signal for transferring data to the Board of Elections at the end of the night;
  • a memory stick that stores the data from that specific machine;
  • a paper receipt that poll workers use to verify results;
  • a voter’s paper ballot that could be used for verification.

“The most important thing in an election, other than it being fair and fast and accurate, is that people trust the results,” Gorbea said.

The 590 new machines were purchased earlier this year. They are replacing the state’s old tabulators that are nearly 20 years old, and they were used for the first time in the Sept. 13 statewide primary.

Rhode Island’s vote counts will now be transmitted over a wireless connection at the end of the night from each polling place to the Board of Elections.

John Marion, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Rhode Island, said that “people should feel confident. We have an extremely transparent process for voting.”

Marion said the simple fact that Rhode Islanders use a paper ballot rather than an all-electronic system is the first step to ensuring confidence in the results. After the infamous 2000 “hanging chad” debacle in Florida, a lot of other states went to all-electronic systems, he said.

“Examples came up of machines being programmed wrong, and people being asked to press one button and a vote was scored for someone else, that sort of thing,” Marion said. “We preserved our system, our paper-based system, all along.”

Marion also said the likelihood of a nationwide hack is low, because each state or county manages its own elections in the U.S., rather than having one unified federal system.

“In Rhode Island it’s a single state system, but if you wanted to sort of rig an election you’d have to do more than 50 attempts to do it,” he said. “So it makes it almost impossible.”

When asked how it’s approaching the election and national claims of hacking, a spokesperson for the Boston office of the FBI said, “the voter system is very difficult for someone to hack into because it’s so dispersed.”

“However, any intrusion in connection with this nation’s election system is something the FBI takes extremely seriously,” the spokesperson, Kristen Setera, wrote in an email. “In coordination with [the U.S. Department of Homeland Security], we’re offering support to our state and local partners so we can equip them with the proper tools in order to safeguard their systems. If state or local officials need assistance, we encourage them to reach out to the DHS National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, or ‘NCCIC’ at 888-282-0870.”

Marion said one thing that Rhode Island doesn’t do, but could stand to benefit from doing, is a post-election audit. Election officials would compare a sample of paper ballots to the tally of the machine to make sure the numbers match. He doesn’t see the lack of an audit as an open door for fraud, but rather a missed opportunity to verify the count.

The Board of Elections has a list of rules and regulations on polling place conduct that includes an outline of the people you may see at the polls working to maintain the integrity of your vote.

Checkers are representatives of each recognized political party; they should bear credentials and are there to maintain a record of who has voted. Observers do just that – observe the election on behalf of a party or candidate. Supervisors are assigned in bipartisan pairs: they’re in charge of the voting list, announcing a voter’s name, and certifying a voter’s identity.

“So I feel very comfortable and I want to make sure Rhode Islanders feel comfortable in making sure that they go out and vote because their vote will be counted if they’re an eligible voter,” Secretary Gorbea said.

People at the polls are allowed to look out for any voting issues, but legitimate efforts to interfere with the process are taken seriously by the authorities.

The FBI says agents will be available on Election Day in every field office and resident agency to manage allegations of fraud of election abuse.