New Hampshire Primary: Worries State Hasn't Shored Up Cyber Defenses Some worry that New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner's office was too slow to acknowledge the scale of the election security problem and focused on addressing the wrong challenges.
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Protector Of N.H. Primary Claims 'You Can't Hack This Pencil,' But Worries Persist

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Protector Of N.H. Primary Claims 'You Can't Hack This Pencil,' But Worries Persist

Protector Of N.H. Primary Claims 'You Can't Hack This Pencil,' But Worries Persist

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

New Hampshire prides itself on its electoral traditions. There's the first-in-the-nation presidential primary coming up in a few weeks, and there are its paper ballots - a safeguard when there are so many concerns about election interference. But as Casey McDermott from member station NHPR reports, some in New Hampshire worry that the state's election officials are preserving tradition at the expense of security.

CASEY MCDERMOTT, BYLINE: To say New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner is confident in the security of his state's elections is an understatement. Here's how he addressed the issue a few months before the 2018 midterms.

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BILL GARDNER: You want to know about being hacked? You see this pencil here?

MCDERMOTT: Gardner held up an actual pencil.

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GARDNER: Want me to give it to you and see if you can hack this pencil? We have this pencil. This is how people vote in this state. And you can't hack this pencil.

DENIS GOULET: I mean, he's correct in that respect.

MCDERMOTT: Denis Goulet is in charge of information technology for the state of New Hampshire. And he says if you're just looking at the voting process, there's reason to be confident. While other states have to worry about hacking threats to electronic voting machines or other election technology, New Hampshire is still old-school.

GOULET: I've said this to the secretary of state. I think that our biggest risk isn't, in a sense, that the election results could be affected because it would be really hard to do that.

MCDERMOTT: With few exceptions, voters here register and cast ballots on paper and in person, but Goulet says that's not all New Hampshire has to worry about.

GOULET: What could happen is undermining the confidence of the system, which, I think, is at least as bad.

MCDERMOTT: Behind the scenes, New Hampshire's IT team has been working more closely with the secretary of state, helping to vet new cybersecurity software and urging a more holistic view of election security in general. But the secretary of state has still turned down more hands-on cybersecurity help from federal and state agencies. And from the outside, some still worry that Gardner's office was too slow to acknowledge the scale or complexity of the threats facing the state's elections.

JON MORGAN: New Hampshire is a top-tier target as a first-in-the-nation primary state, and we need to be taking that much more seriously than we are.

MCDERMOTT: Jon Morgan is a Democratic state senator. He also works for a cybersecurity company that just discovered a Russian hack into the Ukrainian energy company at the center of the ongoing impeachment case against President Trump. Morgan's biggest concern is that hackers might target the hundreds of municipalities on the front lines of New Hampshire's elections, holding them hostage with ransomware attacks or trying to scam a local poll worker into giving up access to the state's voter files.

MORGAN: There is a tremendous lack of resources and lack of expertise. And thus, that's where the threats are going to be targeted. The bad guys know that. The bad guys know where the vulnerabilities are.

MCDERMOTT: The state has offered a lot more cybersecurity training for local poll workers in the last few years, but that training isn't mandatory. New Hampshire also got $3 million from the federal government in 2018 to help shore up its election security, but it has only spent a fraction of that money and doesn't plan to share with cities or towns to offset the costs of local security upgrades. If there is a breach, Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan says there are backups to make sure the election can still go on.

DAVE SCANLAN: I think if you compare the steps that we've taken with other states, we're - you know, we're right where we should be.

MCDERMOTT: There is one step New Hampshire has not taken that lots of other states have - post-election audits to check the accuracy of the vote count. Election policy experts and local activists have said New Hampshire should start doing audits and soon because it is such an electoral battleground not just in the primary but also the general election. In 2016, the races for president and U.S. Senate here were decided by less than 1%.

For NPR News, I'm Casey McDermott.

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