Nevada joins first federal-local elections security exercise


Wade Vandervort

Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske attends Table Top the Vote 2018, a national election cyber exercise that is being hosted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. The purpose of the exercise is to assist DHS, state and local election stakeholders in identifying best practices and improving cyber incident planning, through simulation of realistic scenarios exploring impacts to voter confidence, voting operations, and the integrity of elections.

Tue, Aug 14, 2018 (2 a.m.)

Nevada is one of 20 states that explored election security scenarios in a first-ever virtual exercise with federal officials.

The tabletop simulation brought together agencies, such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, with local officials, including Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske and Clark County Registrar of Voters Joe Gloria. DHS hosted the tabletop exercise in an interactive webcast with states to help show what processes are in place and what gaps may exist in dealing with possible issues well ahead of Election Day.

Local, state and federal agencies have been working to improve collaboration and cooperation to respond to threats since 2016, an election marked by concerns about foreign attempts to interfere in the election outcome. Organizers say that the goal of this inaugural tabletop exercise is to become an annual event to improve how the federal government communicates and coordinates with states.

“We’re doing everything in our power to make sure that we don’t have any incidents and cyber incidents related to elections, but if there is an incident, we want to make sure that the first time everybody involved is hearing and thinking about it, is not when the incident occurs,” said Wayne Thorley, Nevada’s deputy secretary of state for elections. “We want them to have thought about it and trained on it and role-played, and that’s what we’re doing right here.”

Cegavske said during a break in the virtual exercise that her office is still conducting a voter fraud investigation related to the 2016 election.

“You have to take your time and you have to do every one individually,” Cegavske said. “That takes time. It just takes time.”

It’s unclear when a report on that investigation might be available, with Cegavske pointing to time spent on her office’s recent move, and other agencies involved in the investigation. She said work by Thorley’s division and the local registrars and clerks helped Nevada rank fifth in the country in election administration. The analysis included voting count accuracy in its evaluation.

“I feel very confident in our elections,” she said. “There are things that we can’t discuss obviously that took place, and I think we’ve got those particular issues addressed, we just aren’t able yet to bring them to the public.”

The Secretary of State’s Office has concluded an investigation into double votes, finding that these were almost entirely people who weren’t sure their ballots were actually cast. The state is working with counties to make sure poll workers are following protocol as well as only allowing supervisors to reissue voting cards, Thorley said.

Some of the confusion was tied to the new equipment rolled out statewide for the primary this year, a transition funded by counties and $8 million from the state. Voters are issued cards at the polling place that they insert into the new voting machines to make their selections. These cards can tell poll workers whether a ballot has actually been cast.

“We have a brand-new voting system that we’re using in this state, so it’s a learning process not only for our poll workers but for our voters too,” Thorley said.

Much of the event was closed for security, but it focused overall on communication from top federal agencies down to local governments and vice versa; and responding to possible incidents, like a state’s online voter registration system coming under attack.

Nevada also held a sister event at the Nevada National Guard complex in Carson City, for about 60 officials in elections administration, information technology and emergency response, among other experts.

“Anytime we all come together collectively, it’s very beneficial to every one of us,” Cegavske said. “You can ask questions, there’s things that other states bring up that we might not have thought of, or we might get information to them that they might not have thought of.”

Nevada is looking to take West Virginia’s lead, for example, in collaborating with the state’s National Guard to monitor threats, Thorley said. The state is exploring a similar relationship with the Nevada National Guard, with two guardsmen listening in on the simulation in Carson City, Thorley said.

“We’ve heard some great ideas from the other states,” Thorley said after the first phase of the tabletop exercise.

After the simulation concluded, Thorley said the conversations helped bring a better understanding of which federal agencies to go to in the event of an election incident. For criminal issues and investigations, states can contact the FBI, Thorley said, while DHS can help with mitigating whatever the problem might be to ensure the election can continue.

“A lot of good collaboration, sharing and exchanging of ideas,” Thorley said. “I hope they continue to have these types of trainings and exercises as we work to secure elections in Nevada.”

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