LIMA — For most Ohio voters, March 17 is just another election day.
For Ohio’s election officials, however, the date marks the end of months-long preparations to ensure the state’s elections remain safe and secure.
Since last June, county boards of elections across the state have undertaken a lengthy checklist of security upgrades meant to bring Ohio’s election security above par.
“We’re ahead of the country in a lot of ways,” Ohio’s Secretary of State Frank LaRose said while listing some of the security improvements mandated by Ohio in the last few years.
Ohio’s upgrades began under LaRose’s predecessor, Jon Husted, when the state allocated $114.5 million to buy new voting machines across the state. At that time, every county moved through the process of testing and purchasing new voting machines approved at the federal level for their stringent safety protocols.
LaRose explained how the U.S Election Assistance Commission tests each product’s underpinning software, hardware and supply chain before giving the green light. Once purchased, county boards then check each machine, which includes public testing, before voters get to use them on election day.
But while voting machines are important part of the puzzle, election security is much more extensive than making sure that each vote was made on a machine with a paper trail.
Outside of voting machines, the state’s election directive mandates a number of trainings and software upgrades for each county, which includes installing a number of cybersecurity proponents and products to protect board computer systems, adding multi-factor authentication and phishing trainings for county employees.
When asked about the election security upgrades in Allen County, Board of Election Director Kathy Meyer rattled off an extensive list conducted by her office under the state’s direction, which includes adding network monitoring by the Department of Homeland Security, limiting email and Internet access, vulnerability scanning, adding firewalls and holding scenario training that preps officials if a problem should happen.
“It can be a pain, but I hope in the long run, people can feel more secure,” Meyer said.
A call to the Putnam County Board of Elections resulted in a similar listing, and officials explained how machines are tested for accuracy and logic by using a “test deck” of ballots that ensure correct counts. Such testing and subsequent post-election audits are now baked into the system.
Another aspect of security is that each county is widely responsible for its own election system. LaRose said the non-centralized design is partially a security feature that makes widespread hacking almost impossible.
“For someone to conduct some sort of conspiracy to try and throw an election would take convincing dozens and dozens of people from several boards of elections to commit many felonies at one time,” LaRose said.
Such non-centralization, however, does come with some of its own problems. When the election directive came down the line in June, not all county boards of elections were able to hit their deadlines to fulfill the state’s mandate. The state’s largest offender, Van Wert County Board of Elections, was placed on administrative oversight starting in February for not hitting its benchmarks.
“They are definitely on the right track now,” LaRose said. “We’re keeping them under administrative oversight. Quite candidly, I believe that there are some cultural changes that need to be made there.”
LaRose didn’t give a timeline for when the board would leave administrative oversight but clarified that such a status can be a boon as the board now has a “full-time consultant free of charge from the secretary of state’s office.”
“They are now compliant with the security directive,” LaRose said. “The voters of Van Wert County can be certain that the situation is right at their current board of elections.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.