Election 2018FeaturedNewsSecurityTrump

INSIGHTS | Colorado beat the Russians at its election games

Author: Joey Bunch - July 30, 2018 - Updated: August 10, 2018

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electionsColorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams has been called a national leader in election security. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

When Wayne Williams took office in 2015, secretaries of state didn’t talk much about hackers or, if at all, Russians. Now those topics dominate discussions among the sharpest minds and deepest worriers about the security of our elections.

Colorado became a tough nut to crack for election meddlers even before the current concerns about the 2016 presidential result and this November’s midterm elections. The state invested in security when the only reward was public trust, not national interests.

The Washington Post ratified that in May, under a headline that proclaimed, “How Colorado became the safest state to cast a vote.”

In February, Williams was one of the election officials who met in a classified briefing at a federal fusion center — an intelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination facility led by the Department of Homeland Security — to talk about threats. He also is one of the authors of a proposal for the National Association of Secretaries of State to create a permanent cybersecurity committee, “which formalizes what’s really become reality, because it’s one of the major topics we discuss,” he told me.

Colorado’s expertise came into focus this month when Homeland Security convened a cybersecurity coordinating council with local officials in a hotel in Philadelphia. Of 27 people in the room, including federal officials, four were from Colorado: Williams, his elections director Judd Choate, Denver director of elections Amber McReynolds, and Colorado Springs city clerk Sarah Johnson.

Newspaper reporter turned Williams’ press aide Lynn Bartels accompanied him to the association’s summer convention and wrote about it on her blog.

“As I see it, election security is national security,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the gathering of secretaries of state and election officials, my friend Lynn reported.

> READ: Secretaries of states’ plan for cyber security

A Trumper, Neilson pivoted to the politics while swerving around any hint of delegitimizing her boss’ win. “There was a lot of confusion about what happened, with many unfortunately trying to politicize the issue,” she said, according to Bartels. “Mischaracterized, misunderstood and blatantly false information was floating around, but the fact is — and this bears repeating — no votes were altered.

“What we did see, though, is without a question concerning: Russian government cyber actors seeking vulnerabilities and access to U.S. election infrastructure.”

Colorado was probed in 2016 and could be again.

Neilson and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats have said there is no doubt this year’s midterm election will be targeted by the Kremlin. Coats called the attempts by Russia to undermine democracy “pervasive” and “ongoing.”

The wonky business of vote counting has been an exercise in legitimacy and integrity since Eve lobbied Adam tin favor of an apple. But now it’s politically trendy.

On June 19, U.S. House Republicans voted down a Democratic bill to increase election security spending. Sure, Democrats wanted to secure elections, but they also wanted to turn a spotlight on Republicans and Russians. The proposal failed along party lines, as Democrats chanted “USA! USA!” on the House floor.

The last major infusion of federal dollars into state election systems was the $3.6 billion authorized by the Help America Vote Act in 2002. It was signed by the last Republican president, George W. Bush, after he won the White House under a cloud of controversy in 2000.

“The vitality of America’s democracy depends on the fairness and accuracy of America’s elections,” Bush said before signing the act. “Over two centuries our country has broadened the right to vote and sealed that right in law, making our government more accountable to the people, and more representative of the people.

“When problems arise in the administration of elections we have a responsibility to fix them.”

Trump might not have a burning passion for election security, but Nielsen (who was born in Colorado Springs) has offered significant cyber security assistance and resources not budgeted specifically for local elections, said Williams.

Eight people from the Department of Homeland Security worked in his office for two weeks “probing our cybersecurity preparedness,” Williams said

And Trump?

“I can’t speak for what he’s doing, but I can tell you his Homeland Security Department is doing a great job,” Williams said.

The Republican secretary of state credited the governor’s office (led by Democrat and possible presidential candidate John Hickenlooper) and the split-partisan legislature for investing and otherwise supporting what it takes to have trustworthy elections. The close partisan divide in this state made it more about watching the other party than warding off foreign threats.

“This has all been part of what Colorado planned for and has done from the very beginning,” Williams said of overall security. “And we’ve looking at (hacking) not just as an isolated thing but as a part of what we do.”

Elections aren’t the only front where Coloradans are taking on Putin. U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Yuma, continues to push to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terror:

“As the U.S. intelligence services have reported, it is an incontrovertible fact that Russia sought to influence the 2016 elections in the United States — a fact that President Putin openly confirmed during the recent U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki,” Gardner told Colorado Politics. “We know Russia will try again, so we must also be forward thinking to prevent this assault on our democracy from ever happening again.

“As we get closer to our next elections, we should be making it clear to the KGB thug Vladimir Putin, and anyone else who dares meddle in our elections, that this type of behavior will never be tolerated and will be met with severe and immediate consequences.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.