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After Iowa Confusion, Election Security Concerns Emerge Anew

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Democratic election officials in Iowa are still trying to sort out all the ways the state's caucus went wrong. And the confusion has led Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, to call for a recanvass of the results. Now, with the 2020 election officially underway, the question of what else could go wrong lingers over the coming contests.

Earlier, I spoke to Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon. He sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee and has long expressed concerns about the security of the 2020 elections. I began by asking the senator about that recanvass proposal.

RON WYDEN: I can tell you as somebody who has not endorsed anyone, I do believe it's appropriate to have a recanvass if there are questions about whether the votes have been counted correctly. I will tell you I contacted the DNC three times during the month of January checking on issues - for example, whether anyone had tested this phone app. And I continue to have real questions about whether there was any testing. And I can tell your listeners an untested phone app to deliver election results is like asking a person off the street to safeguard our nuclear codes.

CORNISH: Now you said you contacted them three times. This was a while back. What were the red flags for you?

WYDEN: Well, there are a number of considerations. There are always questions about design. There are questions about testing. There are questions about audits. And when you have an absence of comments from people who are independent experts in election security, you start asking some questions. And the fact that we couldn't get any answers out of the top people at the DNC is very ominous.

CORNISH: The first primary in the nation takes place on Tuesday. Does any of this give you concern over the security of that vote?

WYDEN: Well, I have been pushing very aggressively to have some cybersecurity standards. And unless you have cybersecurity standards for election infrastructure - and we're talking about everything from voter registration databases to hand-marked paper ballots to websites that can actually report results accurately - you're really in a potentially dangerous area.

CORNISH: So far what we know out of Iowa is that there were problems with this smartphone app - right? - not a hack so to speak. But it sounds like what you're concerned about is overall vulnerability in the election infrastructure, that right now technologically, somehow the U.S. is not strong enough or that there are too many soft spots. What are you seeing?

WYDEN: Certainly the situation in Iowa involved the app and the question about getting the results. In other words, there was a paper trail there. With respect to the overall situation, there are so many holes. You've got hostile foreign governments who certainly want to influence the outcome of our election through hacks, you've got these election technology, you know, companies looking to make money with various kinds of approaches that I think shortchange cybersecurity. And all of this adds up, in my view, to long lines on Election Day in communities across the country and inadequate security.

CORNISH: When you talk about the idea of potential election interference in 2020, what are the vulnerabilities you're talking about?

WYDEN: What I'm concerned about is the idea that the Russians or some other global power would attack us, and we would sort of send in the local IT person. You know, when you're up against countries with this kind of capability, you need a new federal-local partnership. This is not about the federal government taking over elections, but it is about the federal government, for example, saying, hey, look; let me give you some tips so you don't buy overpriced, insecure junk that people use on Election Day.

CORNISH: If, as you believe, election infrastructure that is secure needs to be up and running a year before an election, is it too late to do anything?

WYDEN: What we really need now is we need election security Paul Reveres all over the country going to their election officials and asking the questions with respect to everything from e-poll books to the way they're going to announce the results on election night to the integrity of voter databases. And when they see problems, let us know.

CORNISH: That's Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WYDEN: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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