Tennessee's top election officials tried to allay fears that the state's voting records are vulnerable to hacking, even as they acknowledged there's a significant risk that outside groups could try to disrupt future elections.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett, election coordinator Mark Goins and others told a panel of state senators Tuesday that they are preparing against the possibility that someone could attempt to muddle voter rolls or election results, in an attempt to sow confusion about the outcome of a close race.
But they say the chances of such an attack succeeding are much lower than many Tennesseans realize. They note that the entire voting process is closely watched by Republicans and Democrats, and they say records are scrutinized for signs that final results have been tampered with.
"There's a certification process," Goins says. "We do have a verification process."
President Donald Trump brought the specter of election tampering to a national conversation in the fall of 2016, when polls showed he was likely to lose to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The president continued to fuel such fears after the election, claiming without supporting evidence that Clinton had received more votes only because millions had cast ballots illegally.
Election experts and the public officials who oversee voting say there's little chance the widespread, in-person voter fraud that Trump alleges could succeed.
The bigger risk is that voting rolls could be altered to suppress turnout, or hackers could tap into the websites where unofficial results are posted on election night.
"If we said someone had won a race by a thousand votes and then all of a sudden we made a correction, showing them losing by a thousand votes, people watching the returns would think, 'What happened?'" Hargett said. "That is what would erode confidence on election night, frankly."
In Tennessee, most votes are cast using electronic machines. The machines are not hooked to the internet, which officials say makes it exceedingly difficult for hackers to manipulate the results on any large scale, and they can spit out results moments after polls close. Those tallies are added up by local election officials — with oversight from Democrats, Republicans and independent observers — and then relayed to the state, which publishes them on the secretary of state's website on election night.
But the results are not finalized until county and state officials have reviewed records from each precinct. Those records show how many people appeared to vote and how many votes were actually cast.
Last year, Tennessee election officials found about 40 potential cases of improper voting out of more than 4 million ballots cast in the general and primary elections. Only a handful were found to be serious enough to warrant prosecution.
Still, officials say there are threats to the system. Last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told 21 states that they'd found evidence Russian hackers had tried to infiltrate their voting systems in the lead-up to the election. But so far, it appears they succeeded in only two, and there's no evidence the intrusions affected the outcome.
"The story that's not being told is the system worked in the overwhelmingly majority of those states," says Goins. "In those 19 states, when they tried to turn the door, the alarm went off and they got turned away."
Purging Technique Questioned
Election officials also defended their use of a controversial database, known as Crosscheck, for finding voters who are also registered in other states.
Questions have been raised about the system's accuracy, and Democrats worry it could be used to target minority voters. But Tennessee election officials say they're using the data as a starting point, not the final word.
The Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program was initiated by the state of Kansas with the purpose of finding people who are registered to vote in more than more place. The system is voluntary, but election coordinators in dozens of states, including Tennessee, have tried it out.
But critics say Crosscheck produces nearly 200 false positives for every 1 person who's actually voted twice. The reason: It works by cross-referencing names and birth dates. And in a country with about 250 million potential voters, there are bound to be thousands of matches.
Goins, however, says officials are well aware of the system's limitations, so they don't jump to conclusions. Instead, election officials take steps like checking signatures and contacting voters by mail. He says fewer than 200 people were removed last year.
"We are painstakingly thorough when we're looking at who needs to be removed based on that list," he says. "So we're not just looking at that list and saying, 'They have a matching name, date of birth, we're going to remove them.'"
Democrats worry, though, the follow-up may not be enough. They note that low-income people tend to move more frequently — meaning they might be harder to verify — and they say some minority groups tend to share names more often.
State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, says that when Tennessee first started using Crosscheck, removals quickly rose. He suggests legitimate voters might be getting purged.
"(I) completely agree that we want ineligible people to be removed," state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville said. "There's the Electronic Registration Information Center, which a growing number of states are participants in. ... This has led to better registration rates, better participation rates, cleaner rolls, and it saves states money."
Goins says the state is considering using that system but isn't prepared to pay the start-up costs.