The Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections has ordered 1,750 updated iPad Minis — which will be able to have the latest Apple security patch on them — for voters to check in with at the polls in the November election.
The iPads will be paid for with a federal grant meant to be spent on strengthening cyber security for election systems, money Palm Beach County Commissioners are expected to formally accept at today’s commission meeting.
The move is the latest security enhancement taken by the supervisor, Susan Bucher. Bucher said that while election safeguards always have been a focus, her office has undergone a “tremendous” effort to ensure security since September 2016. She says that is when she learned in a conference call with other supervisors, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security that the agencies were aware of probing from Russian hackers into Florida elections.
Bucher said officials have yet to specify to her if Palm Beach County was hit, citing a lack of security clearance. However, she said, “As Palm Beach County goes, we probably are on the list.
“Palm Beach County is a swing county and we also have a large proportion of registered voters who are active and that’s why I think we would be an obvious potential target.”
The move, just two weeks before the Aug. 28 primary, also comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of voting security.
The heads of the nation’s intelligence security agencies on Aug. 3 held a White House briefing in which they outlined the steps they have taken to thwart foreign interference in the midterm elections. And just last week, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson warned that Russian entities had “penetrated” the voter registration systems in “certain counties” in Florida – a claim that was immediately challenged by Gov. Rick Scott, who is running against Nelson for the U.S. Senate seat this fall.
Nonetheless, on July 2, Nelson and Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, authored a letter to Florida’s secretary of state, Ken Detzner, insisting that he and the state’s 67 county elections supervisors seek federal resources to develop adequate security safeguards.
Florida election supervisors also have other reasons to be watchful.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced in a July indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officials that Russian hackers tried to breach elections systems in “numerous Florida counties” in the final weeks before the 2016 presidential election. The attempt “was not in any way successful,” a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State said last month.
In addition to the new iPads, which will not be installed for the primary vote, Bucher said the county’s elections office works with an FBI agent and an investigator with Homeland Security who are assigned to the local region. Bucher and her IT director went through training, including cyber security fundamentals.
Also, she added the iPad internet connection is behind Palm Beach County’s firewall, which is monitored by Homeland Security. The federal agency created in the wake of the 9-11 attacks has performed “cyber war games” in which Homeland Security teams have tried to hack into the county’s system but they have been unable to penetrate, Bucher said.
Also working in favor of the elections’ office security effort is that votes are filled out on paper, election equipment is not connected to the internet, and the office performs audits after elections that have come back clean.
Bucher pointed out the iPads are individually licensed, encrypted and downloaded with the voter database.
“So if someone wanted to hack the voter database, they’d have to attack each Mini iPad separately,” Bucher said.
The county already uses 3,500 iPads, but they are from 2014 and aren’t able to be updated with the latest security patch on them. Bucher ordered another 1,750 with a $909,513 Elections Security Grant. Those iPads can be updated with the patch. They’ll be ready for the general election, she said.
The money is coming from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. It awarded Florida $19,187,003 in federal funds under the 2018 Help America Vote Act Election Security Grant. The state’s Legislative Budget Commission in July authorized distributing $15.45 million among the 67 counties to enhance the security and administration of elections, and Palm Beach County got $909,513.
While that leaves half of the total number of iPads without the patch, Bucher said she remains confident there won’t be a problem.
She plans to put in next year’s budget a request to replace the rest. That’ll come with an $11.131 million request to the county to replace voting equipment.