Paul Pate calls election security a ‘race without a finish line’

By: - September 9, 2021 5:53 pm

Misinformation aimed at voters is a form of cyberattack on elections, experts said during a cybersecurity conference Sept. 9, 2021. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Paul Pate said Thursday that Iowa can’t let up on cybersecurity efforts despite a lack of tampering in the state’s 2020 elections.

Pate joined cybersecurity and misinformation experts Thursday for a conference on election cybersecurity. He reported that the 2020 election went “fairly smoothly” in Iowa. All 99 Iowa counties had a 100% match between vote tabulators and a hand count audit from the November 2020 election, he said.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate. (Photo courtesy Iowa Secretary of State)

“The one thing that’s important for Iowans to remember, if they have cybersecurity concerns, is that we vote on paper ballots,” Pate said. “You can’t hack a paper ballot.”

Even so, Pate said, “election cybersecurity remains a race without a finish line.” He said the state is working continually to ensure Iowa’s elections are safe against cyberattacks.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad also spoke briefly at the conference, which was hosted virtually by the University of Southern California. Ernst and Branstad both emphasized the importance of taking preventative measures to protect election systems.

“In the wake of the attacks we’ve seen this year on our utilities and food systems, like the Colonial Pipeline and JBS Foods, it’s clear that cyberattacks threaten the safety and well-being of every American,” Ernst said.

Experts: Viral misinformation can also be a cyberattack

Experts at Thursday’s conference said cyberattacks on elections include not just foreign hackers changing voter tallies on Election Night, but also the spreading of disinformation before and after an election.

USC Information Sciences Professor Clifford Neuman acknowledged that Iowa and other states had effectively isolated their voting infrastructure from hackable wi-fi connections or other networks. Because it is difficult for attackers to actually change voter data or Election Night results, Neuman said “adversaries” looked primarily toward other avenues — like the “manipulation of voters.” 

Possible attacks include disinformation campaigns and targeted advertisements, incorrect information about where and how to vote, and discouraging voting. After the election, Neuman said some foreign adversaries sowed doubt among Americans about whether the election results could be trusted.

“An adversary might not even need to change the outcome of the election,” he said. “Their goal might simply be to create distrust in that outcome, and we have seen that in the 2020 elections.”

American politicians have also furthered the idea that the U.S. election system is prone to hacking, said Dave Quast, a public affairs consultant.

“The narrative of rigged elections or fake results, that’s something that’s being seeded right now — and has been over the years — by both parties,” Quast said.

Some Republican lawmakers in Iowa promoted “The Big Lie” while debating a major election bill, repeating false claims that the 2020 election had been hacked and that former President Donald Trump had won. State Sen. Jim Carlin said in February that fraud, which he believed to be widespread in 2020, was “the worst kind of voter suppression.”

“Millions and millions and millions of people believe there was fraud,” said Carlin, R-Sioux City. “Most of us in my caucus, in the Republican caucus, believe the election was stolen.”

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.