Silas Walker, Deseret News
A woman holds a handheld electronic voting machine used during Utah GOP convention at the Utah Valley University campus UCCU Center in Orem on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers have been fretting over what might happen if someone wins a primary election with less than 50 percent, plus one, of the vote.

It’s an interesting debate and all. Americans, in general, don’t like it when someone gets sworn into an office of authority after earning less than that threshold, even though it happens all the time in the race for president and has happened countless times in various elections in the nation’s history.

But, with all that is swirling around us these days, the debate sounds a bit like arguing over which shrubs to plant in the front yard while someone is shooting at the house with a machine gun.

The majority vs. plurality argument means little if the nation’s enemies succeed in hacking an election — something they apparently are spending every waking minute trying to do.

The Russian hacks on Democratic Party computer servers in 2016 are one thing. The social media campaigns on a gullible and mostly ignorant electorate are another. Both are troubling.

But now we learn, thanks to the Mueller report and confirmation from Florida’s governor, that in two Florida counties, Russian hackers actually breached county election systems three years ago.

Holy hanging chads!

And they did this through old-fashioned, low-cost spear-phishing campaigns. You know the drill. Russians sent enticing emails to county workers with links attached. Those links, if clicked, downloaded software that penetrated voter rolls. You probably see these attempts several times a week, along with emails from foreign princes holding money for you.

“It doesn’t matter how good your security is if you give someone the keys to your car,” Justin Lee, Utah’s director of elections, deadpanned when I called him Tuesday. He also assured me no one had handed over the keys to Utah’s registration database, which his office keeps for the entire state, and which last year was receiving 1 billion hacking attempts daily in advance of Election Day.

Maybe it’s just me, but that seems like a lot for a small, isolated Western state. But then, your bank or local retailer probably got a few million hacking attempts this week alone. It’s a dangerous virtual world out there.

On the eve of the 2016 election, I tried to calm an anxious voting public by illustrating how difficult it would be to rig an election. My argument was simple: In the United States, elections generally are conducted on the county level, and there are 3,143 counties and county equivalents (boroughs, independent cities, etc.) to infiltrate.

A conspiracy to change election results would require not only compromising the equipment in those counties, but a lot of precinct judges, too, I said.

That’s still a mostly valid argument, except that the bad guys wouldn’t necessarily need to mess with actual vote tallies. If they could get enough people to unwittingly hand them the keys to voter registration databases in a few tossup counties, they could unregister people, change their precinct assignments or otherwise wreak enough havoc and confusion to alter who gets to vote, thereby ruining our confidence in the whole system.

As if we need a lot of help destroying our confidence in government institutions.

We don’t know much about what happened in Florida. The FBI and government officials there won’t even identify the counties involved. All they will do is assure everyone that the hackers didn’t alter the results in any way.

Here in Utah, Lee said he’s satisfied Utah lawmakers have taken election security seriously, appropriating money to enhance security. “We’re in a much better place than a lot of other states,” he said.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen wants voters to know that hackers can’t get into actual voting machines, which are not connected to the internet. During an election year, she examines registration information daily to look for suspicious changes in how demographic groups are represented.

Lee said governors, secretaries of state and lieutenant governors nationwide are talking about this constantly, sharing information and techniques.

10 comments on this story

Sure, the debate over whether someone might win a primary with less than 50 percent of the vote might be interesting on a sort of wonkish, esoteric level, even though it hasn’t been much of a problem in Utah since statehood.

Should we hold a runoff election, allow ranked-choice voting or conduct a “jungle” election that advances the top two vote-getters regardless of party?

I’m not really sure, but I do know this much. Ultimately, the most important thing is to make sure everyone who is registered can vote, and every vote is tallied correctly.