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From Cybersecurity To Spoiled Ballots: How Officials Prepare For A Presidential Election

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Election judges wait for voters in DeKalb County.

Early voting is open in Illinois. But five minutes before it opened on February 6, election integrity actually just sounds like a long receipt being printed out by a voting machine. That’s because it is. It has every race, every candidate, every party.

Peter Medlin reports from DeKalb.

And since voting starts less than five minutes from this moment…it all reads zero. 

“All of the numbers have to match every day,” said Jessica Rugerio, a deputy clerk in DeKalb County.

They compare the numbers to the paper ballots, no app required. 

Now it’s 8:30 a.m. “Okay, sir, there you are! Ready to go!” says an election judge. Doug Johnson grabs his ballot and heads over to a booth. 

He’s the DeKalb County Clerk. It’s his job to make sure voting in the county goes off without a hitch. He’s also the test run, so he gets to be the first to vote.

He fills it out and pops it into the machine, which reads: “You’re finished, thank you for voting; public count: 1.” 

And just like that, the 2020 election is underway in DeKalb County. 

Foreign interference was a big story coming out of the last presidential election. Back in 2016, Russian operatives hacked the Illinois voter registration database. State election officials say no voter information was manipulated.

Empty polling booths wait for early voters in DeKalb County. Peter Medlin/WNIJ

Rockford has its own elections board separate from Winnebago County. Stacey Bixby is the executive director of the commission. As for the Russian hacking, she says, “They hadn’t gotten anything from the Rockford Board of Elections.” 

After the Russian infiltration, the State of Illinois invested millions in federal funds from the Help America Vote Act to start a cyber navigator program. Bixby said it’s already helped their team.

“It has made my IT company much more aware of how our securities have to be and how tight they need to be and addresses that need to be banned that can’t get into our website or our server, or any of our personal information,” she said.

Doug Johnson in DeKalb County says the state has been doing more to ensure security.

“The State of Illinois even set up some technology security advisors to analyze all of our equipment, everything that we’re doing our procedures and we passed, flying colors,” said Johnson.

This election cycle concerns include domestic glitches in voter registry integrity. A programming error inadvertently registered more than 500 non-citizens to vote last month. And the Illinois Board of Elections said hundreds of former inmates could have been taken off the voting rolls. 

People like Johnson and Bixby don’t want you to worry about your vote being compromised. Here’s Bixby on what happens after you cast your ballot: 

“So they move from the judges to our IT department in our accounting center and are uploaded,” she said. “So as long as there’s no internet or modems in our equipment, nobody can get to that media.”

Election judges also keep track of spoiled ballots: ones incorrectly marked or otherwise replaced. Johnson says they always need more election judges. And as elections utilize more technology, their job also demands more tech savvy.

DeKalb County Clerk Doug Johnson collects his ballot from election judges. Peter Medlin/WNIJ

And aside from cybersecurity, Johnson says DeKalb County is thinking about polling location security too, mainly for the general election in November. He said, “It’s going to be contentious. I’m not going to have full time, but what I do is I ask all the law enforcement in DeKalb County — that if they have an officer available — just driving by a poll, stop in and say ‘Hi.’”

Election administrators also have to prepare polling locations. They check each voting machine to make sure it’s working. Sometimes locations decide they don’t want to host polling places anymore. 

In LaSalle County they’ve had to move some recently. One polling spot in a 9-story residential complex in LaSalle had to move to make access easier. Lori Bongartz is the county clerk.

“I thought it was time to make a change to go find someplace bigger and more parking area for the voters there,” she said.

Counties typically err on the side of consistency and keep the same spots for years.

The voting machines need inspection and, sometimes, replacement. DeKalb County recently bought new ones from Kane County. Doug Johnson said DeKalb’s previous machines were nearly 20 years old. 

“Our other ones were getting so old they don’t make them anymore and we would have to cannibalize ones that were getting old for parts and everything,” he said.

Kane County got rid of them after they absorbed the Aurora Board of Elections. Unlike DeKalb, LaSalle and Rockford, Kane County uses electronic voting machines — a trend many across the country have moved away from.

So far, in Rockford, they’ve been pleasantly surprised with the number of early voters they’ve had.

And it’s only going to get busier as the primary gets closer and undecided voters make their choices. You can even pick a non-partisan ballot. Those voters won’t have any candidates, just ballot initiatives or referenda questions.

Primary election day in Illinois is March 17. But, until then you can take advantage of early voting across the state.

Peter Medlin is a reporter with WNIJ in DeKalb. Follow him on Twitter @RealPeterMedlin.

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