Montgomery Asks to Opt Out of Election Day Wireless Networks

Election
The Maryland State Board of Elections office in Annapolis. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Top Montgomery County officials asked the State Board of Elections to allow them to opt out of an expanded Election Day wireless network on Thursday, citing concerns about cost and security.

In a joint letter to the board, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), County Council President Sidney Katz (D) and Council Vice President Tom Hucker (D) said they believe the network is unnecessary and could be vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks.

“We do not think that it is an appropriate use of County funds. We do not support funding this project,” the leaders wrote.

Staff at the State Board of Elections have proposed expanding wireless networks in the state’s six largest jurisdictions ― Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties. The networks would be used to transmit real-time voter registration changes from electronic pollbooks at about 1,300 precincts to the state elections office in Annapolis on Election Day.

The state’s shift to same-day voter registration prompted the expansion. Previously, wireless networks were only used at early voting sites.

The jurisdictions that are being required to install the networks are also required to pay for them, at about $1,300 per precinct. Montgomery County officials put their cost at $365,000 this week.

At a meeting of the state board on Thursday, Montgomery’s Deputy Director of Elections Alysoun McLaughlin asked the state board to grant the county a waiver from the wireless network requirement before election judge training begins on Jan. 24.

“Our board members have concerns about the security of the system that we at the local level are not able to answer,” she said.

Although there have been sharp disagreements among the Montgomery County Board of Elections members in recent months, their opposition to the wireless network is bipartisan and unanimous.

Because it’s a state system, designed and implemented at the state level, the county has limited information about the technical details and security of the system, said Kathleen Boucher, special assistant to the director of Montgomery’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations.

“Right now, the potential vulnerability to cybersecurity threats in terms of voter integrity and personally identifiable information concerns the county greatly,” Boucher said. “…We simply don’t have the information that leads to any level of confidence.”

Nikki B. Charlson, the state board’s deputy director, noted that the system in question has been used in the state since 2010 at early voting sites and that State Board of Elections staff thoroughly considered alternatives and safety precautions before the expansion.

At precincts, the wireless networks will be masked and all transmissions encrypted as well as the data being sent, Charlson said.

State officials said that real-time networking is necessary to be able to start processing absentee ballots after Election Day, because they need to be able to ensure that no one who voted on Election Day also sent in an absentee ballot.

“Our staff here has worked tirelessly evaluating solutions and coming up with a network that is secure and has been tested and has the capacity to handle this,” Charlson said. “…They’ve thought through those scenarios to come up with this solution.”

But during Thursday’s meeting, some state board members also expressed concerns about the system.

Patrick J. Hogan said he couldn’t go into specifics, but knew details of a recent security breach at a very large sophisticated entity using a similar network.

“It seems like to me, to meet certain deadlines, we’re exposing ourselves to possible risk,” he said. “…I’m not sure it’s worth the risk. Are we so far down the road on this that we can’t turn back?”

Fellow state board member Kelley Howells said she felt in the dark about the proposal as elections staff rolled it out.

County elections officials began receiving updates about the network last February, but the issue was not raised at a state board meeting until September. When Howells asked about the network then, her questions about the system were met with resistance.

Howells said she thought the issue should have come before the board earlier to allow for a more thorough evaluation of the costs and benefits.

After the public meeting, the board met in closed session to discuss several issues and to get a technical briefing on the wireless network.

The state board is coordinating a meeting for local officials to learn more about the system next Thursday.

State Board of Elections Chairman Michael Cogan said the board will take the request from Montgomery County very seriously, but that the board wasn’t prepared to act at Thursday’s meeting.

Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) will introduce a bill to delay the start of the state’s first absentee canvass. Doing so would remove the urgency for data transmission and for the wireless networks that have caused so much concern, Kagan has said.

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