Chicago Election Integrity & Hacking

By Abe Lentner.

By now it is an established fact that foreign hackers worked to meddle in our national elections in 2016. In addition to the well-known DNC hacking, state Boards of Elections were targeted across the country last year.  Illinois was among 20 states that had voter personal data hacked.  200,000 voter records were stolen from the State Board of Elections in Illinois, including very personal data. This personal data may have been used in identity theft, or perhaps in the presidential campaign.  The sophisticated use of personal data and voter analytics played a big part of the Trump campaign with its micro-targeted Facebook ads designed to suppress votes and encourage Trump’s base.

Even though then president Obama ordered an FBI investigation into election hacking in Dec 2016,  and a Senate investigation got started in January 2017, there has been no visible progress to protect the integrity of our elections from foreign hackers at the federal level.

The 2018 primaries are just a year away.  The investigation into election hacking has crawled to halt. There’s no reports, no plan, no action, nothing to stop candidates in 2018 from collaborating with foreign hackers.  I wanted to know what protections are being undertaken locally to protect our personal voter data and votes.

On behalf of the Beverly Area CPA, I went to find some answers at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners on the morning of April 25th.  I spoke during public comment portion of the agenda:

Here is a transcript of my Q&A with the board:

Marisel A. Hernandez, Chairwoman: We have Mr. Lentner from Beverly CPA. You brought your fanclub with you?

Abe Lentner: I did! This is my youngest son, he just turned 3 yesterday so 2032 is his first chance to vote.  Thank you for letting us come.  I’ve been a registered voter in Chicago for nearly 20 years and every election that I’ve been to has been neat and orderly, so I really appreciate the work you put into running the elections here in Chicago.  As you know, we read in the news last fall that hacker groups had stolen data from Illinois voter rolls, electronic voter rolls, some two hundred thousand records. I’ve got the article. So I came with a question, a suggestion and an invitation. The question is: are there protections in place for voter data and our polling data here in the city of Chicago?

Jim Allen, Communications Director: Yes very good question, but the article you’re referencing occurred not with any local election authority but with the State Board of Elections online voter registration. So each agency had its own data. it’s one of these situations where the State Board collects the registrations for every county in the state, every municipality, and then distributes the data for either name and address changes or brand new registrations. In any event no data was changed at the local level, no data were affected at the local level.  The voter data that we post as an election board onto the web is on entirely separate server, segregated so that we feed out a very limited amount of information, only the amount of information that’s necessary to help the voters. So it has their name, their address, the voter registration number, no personal identifying information, no dates of birth years, no partial Social Security numbers, no anything, not even a unit number if they live in an apartment building. So the user on the website is only going to retrieve the information that they already have with the last name and the address and then the districts that corresponds to that address and the polling place location and the sample ballot. So there’s no personal information that’s available on our website.  So we take that very seriously we had again a review of that situation going back to 2006 and we’re very cautious about it, it’s an entirely separate database

The voter registration system that’s housed here at the board is maintained on the servers and different users have the ability to go in, but there’s no ability to hack into that and it’s backed up every night… Never say never with situations like that, it’s foolhardy, it’s an invitation to be hacked, but it is backed up every night…so you can repair it if it’s damaged.

Abe Lentner: And the polling data that comes from the polling place back to the office?

Jim Allen: There are two separate systems that do not touch each other, one is recording who voted on the rolls and the other that records ballot selections.  Those are not intertwined.  Both of those are adequately secure, there are paper backups for the voting record and who voted and there are paper backups for every ballot that’s cast. And those, by law, are the ultimate record, not anything electronic.

Abe Lentner: I’m going to share this when I get back with our team.  And my suggestion for consideration: I think would be wonderful if candidates for office had the opportunity to challenge an opponent who may have used illegally obtained or hacked information in the course of their campaign and be able to present that before an election judge so that a preponderance of evidence could yield some kind of consequence for anyone who conspires to steal data or conspires to campaign in an illegal or unethical manner. So if there’s an opportunity for either a local ordinance or for a state law that would allow someone to challenge the candidates.

Marisel Hernandez: So that would be even a criminal violation.

Abe Lentner: We know how long criminal trials take, much longer than your average campaign. And if a hearing judge, if a campaign election judge, could see the evidence and make a ruling in an expedient manner, the way that petition challenges and similar things are handled, it may be a helpful way to prevent these things from interfering in future elections.  And then my last point, like I said I really appreciate what you do here, and I think you’ve given good information about the security protocols that you have.

We have an open meeting in Beverly on Tuesday May 9th at 7pm in Beverly. If you’d like to send a representative and just kind of briefly explain how secure our elections here in Chicago are, I think it would put a lot of people’s minds at ease. So please feel free to join us. My contact information is on the form and if somebody wants to come by, it would only take 15 to 20 minutes of your time.

Jim Allen’s answers were pretty persuasive to me, a lay-person in all things cyber security. It sounds like the voter data and polling place results are pretty secure.  Even so, a better answer for a lay-person like me would be, “I can assure you that your personal data is secure and the votes are accurate because we’ve hired the best, most respected data security and auditing firm in the country to evaluate our elections, and Chicago gets top ratings from all the major election evaluators.”  Right now, Illinois as a whole runs exactly in the middle of the pack in rankings of fair elections, as rated by the Electoral Integrity Project.  There’s room for improvement but at least we’re not like Arizona or North Carolina.

Afterwards, I spoke with Commissioner Bill Kresse, the republican commissioner of three commissioners on the board. The board is required by law to have no one political party with a majority so it can remain bipartisan.  Bill grew up in Beverly and Evergreen Park, he has a reputation as an expert anti-fraud examiner, and he has served in a senior capacity at the Board of Elections since 1992. He was strongly endorsed by Democrat Timothy Evans, Chief Judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, when he was appointed to the commission 18 months ago.

Overall, it seems that the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners takes external security very seriously.

There is a current dispute regarding internal security.  Chicago always had a reputation for political corruption.  We all know the jokes about the cemetery voters.  I heard that back in the day, the precinct captain would knock over your trash cans if you voted the wrong way (and for those who know the stories, you know this is a forgiving way of describing it).  Here in Chicago, we have good, historic reasons to want our elections to be fair.  Is the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners doing a good job?  Election results are reported promptly.  Meeting minutes and agendas are posted promptly.  Everything appears efficient, transparent and regular.

There is currently a lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Elections from a group alleging multiple forms of election fraud.  The lawsuit is KERLIN et al. v. CHICAGO BOARD OF ELECTIONS, it is worth reading.   The allegations in the lawsuit include insider changes to electronic vote results, fraudulent auditing practices, insufficient transparency, and more.

You can also read the judge’s decisions on preliminary motions to dismiss counts of the lawsuit.  The judge dismissed the second count of the lawsuit regarding monitoring of election audits.  There is another hearing on the lawsuit scheduled for Thursday, and another in late May.

As the lawsuit unfolds, it may provide more insight into the integrity of Chicago elections. If the litigation uncovers problems, little or big, we should fix them.  Beverly CPA will keep an eye on this lawsuit and report if there are major developments.

Here in Beverly we joke about old school Chicago politics, connected families and how the “Machine” fixes elections.  Even so, we turn out to vote in huge numbers and we turn out to vote because we believe it makes a difference.  You all know that your neighborhood Facebook friends post something about voting on election day, and you know that everybody, from all sides, gives it a Like. We believe in voting.  The fastest path to rigged elections is giving up on fair elections, and Chicagoans, as a rule, don’t give up…ask any Cubs fan.

When I go to my polling place, the elections officials are polite and helpful.  Everything is organized and efficient.  When I look through the election results, precinct by precinct for my district after an election, it looks just like what I expect based on yard signs and conversations. That is the way it should be.

If elections can be manipulated and if we give up on making them as fair as they can be, then we won’t get back the E.P.A., the Dept of Education, Obamacare, and everything else we took for granted 5 months ago.  We need to be vigilant, but not cynical.