State of security: Vermont

Who's in charge: Secretary of State Jim Condes

Vigilant Vermont officials in August discovered attempts by possible Russian operatives to target the state’s election system and alerted the Department of Homeland Security.

“We did see the words ‘Russian Federation’ so we did feel that warranted us sending something to DHS,” Secretary of State Jim Condos told the Burlington Free Press. “In this particular instance it was a lone attack, or a lone scan, and we fended it off and we haven’t seen any signs of it since.”

Condos said the incident bolstered confidence in Vermont’s election systems. “Obviously the systems we had in place worked. Our defenses were operational and strong,” he also said. “Because of the robust cyber defenses we have in place we are able to detect and block any malicious activity we have at this point.”

In an October letter to voters, Condos said Vermonters can hit the polls “with confidence in the security and integrity of their vote,” adding when the state “began work on our new elections management system, our goal was to make voter registration and access to voter information as accessible and transparent as possible, while making sure that our systems were secure and well defended.”

Indeed, the MIT Elections Performance Index ranked Vermont first in the nation. The state uses paper ballots, which are stored under seal for 22 months, and its tabulation machines, which are tested 10 days out from an election, aren’t connected to the internet. Audits, conducted within 30 days of an election, have turned up no issues since 2006.

Russian intrusion in the 2016 election galvanized the Freedom & Unity state, which now conducts, along with the DHS, weekly scans to check cyber hygiene. All but 11 of its 246 towns have done basic cybersecurity training focusing on phishing attacks. Vermont now has two-factor authentication for those accessing its election management system and conducted a pen test in April. The state’s efforts started before the 2016 election, though. In 2015 Vermont began backing up its voter registration database each day, Condos said, according to the Burlington Free Press.

State officials understand they’re facing evolving threats. Condos told the Senate Intelligence Committee in the spring, “The bad actors that tried to hack us yesterday are going to try a different way today and are going to be different tomorrow.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) proposed an amendment to the appropriations bill that would have provided $250 million in election security grants to states. That amendment was shot down in a narrow vote.

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