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Voting machine tested in Portage (copy)

Portage City Clerk Marie Moe tests a new voting machine prior to its debut in February's primary election.

Columbia County clerks already are counting ballots and preparing for what likely will be one of the most highly scrutinized midterm primary elections in United States history.

International relations spilled over into municipal governance over the past year with Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats issuing a warning in his February 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment, writing, “Foreign elections are critical inflection points that offer opportunities for Russia to advance its interests both overtly and covertly. The U.S. mid-term elections are a potential target for Russian operations.”

In Portage, the election approaches with little drama as visitors to the Portage Municipal Building occasionally request absentee ballots to fill out at one of the bright blue voting stations in the entryway.

Portage City Clerk Marie Moe said early voting has been typical for a midterm thus far.

“The new equipment has been working really well and people have liked the Express Vote, so we’ve had quite a few people make use of that piece of equipment,” she said.

On the other side of the county, Columbus City Clerk Megan Meyer offered a similar assessment.

“We’ve had many people coming in and doing some early voting,” said Meyer. “Comparing to February or April, it is a little different because of what is on the ballot, but the previous partisan primary we were right on schedule earlier this week — so right around average or a little above average for early voting.”

Both clerks are confident in their systems and equipment going into Tuesday’s election, despite outside concerns of Russian interference in U.S. elections.

“None of the equipment is connected to the internet, so they are standalone pieces of equipment and we have paper ballots here, so you can always verify the results,” Moe said. “We do a public test where we vote every way that they can be voted, even ways that they shouldn’t be voted, just to be sure that the equipment is functioning properly. So that’s the first thing we do.”

Local test runs made sure communication to the Columbia County Clerk’s Office operates smoothly and accurately.

Columbia County Clerk Sue Moll said test runs ensure communication from the voting places around the county is in place so the tallies are transmitted smoothly and accurately.

“The machines are standalone and they are not hooked up to any internet or anything on Election Day and the only time there is a brief window of time at the end of the night when the results are transmitted to the county to a secure server,” Moll said.

During the DEFCON cyber security conference, held in Las Vegas in July 2017, hackers broke into voting equipment with relative ease, in some cases in mere minutes.

“The Voting Village at DEFCON in July 2017 was not intended to be something to entertain hackers,” wrote retired U.S. Army Lt. General and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute in the introduction to the conference’s 18-page report. “It was intended to make clear how vulnerable we are. The report describes clearly why we must act with a sense of urgency to secure our voting systems.”

The report highlighted concerns including the ease of breaking into a voting machine and weaknesses in U.S. election equipment including foreign-made parts.

“I’ve gone to a number of trainings this year and I have full confidence in it,” Meyer said. “ With the Express Vote machine, they will actually get a paper ballot …there is always going to be that paper audit no matter which machine you use or which method you use. We can always still go to a count of that paper trail that is left behind at the end of the day.”

Municipal clerks and the county clerk regularly compare the total number of ballots cast to ensure accuracy. The data generally is not compared to hard-copy ballot totals unless there is a recount, Moe said.

“Once the ballots are given to the county they are sealed and they aren’t opened unless someone petitions for a recount,” sail Moll. “Now the state has said that there can be a voluntary random count, so I will check with our Board of Canvass to see if that is something we would be interested in doing, but that has not been normal procedure or required.”

Moll said the most likely reason a vote wouldn’t be counted during a primary election is if it were to be tossed because a voter did not select one party or another.

“If they don’t pick a party preference, that is considered a crossover ballot and nothing on that ballot would count,” Moll said. “The key thing is that it is almost like five ballots on one sheet and you have to stay with one party.”

Meyer said the new Express Vote machines help prevent voters from invalidating their selections by making cross-party selections.

Follow Jonathan Stefonek on Twitter @StefonekNews or contact him at 608-745-3510

Reporter, Portage Daily Register