Montana Public Radio

Federal Grant Funds Montana Election Security Updates

Sep 20, 2018

Montana is preparing to replace its more than decade-old voter registration system as part of a federal grant program to improve election security.

However, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton says not all those improvements will be in place ahead of the 2018 midterms.

“We’re in a good place, we’re going to keep us in a good place," Stapleton says. "But, I stay up at night sometimes thinking about the scenarios of ‘what if,’ and I think that’s a healthy fear to have.”

Security concerns have recently come front of mind for election officials like Stapleton.

“Because of the 2016 elections and the Russian meddling in those, cybersecurity is all the talk. So it isn’t surprising that IT, infrastructure, safety, training, and in this case, looking at replacing an old, aging statewide voter registration is the lion's share of this money spending.”

Earlier this year Congress approved $380 million in grants to improve the administration of elections nationwide, including upgrading election security.

Montana’s Secretary of State’s office biggest plan with its $3 million of the Help America Vote Act grant is to replace the hardware and software that makes up the state’s voter registration system. Montana’s system, which organizes voter and ballot information, is over a decade old.

“Think about your home computer," Stapleton says. "If you’re using a home computer from the year 2000 and it’s still got Windows 4 on it, it’s a huge upgrade to go to a modern system.”

The Secretary of State’s office says it is currently working with counties to pick a replacement system to organize voter and ballot information and it could be in place by the end of 2019.

Stapleton says when the improvements are made, voters are unlikely to see much of the change because the upgrades are on the back end of the state’s voter registration system.

Montana can use its allotment of the election improvement grant money over the next five years. Stapleton says he hopes his office can get most of it spent, and distributed out to counties for new equipment, in the next year and a half.

The Secretary of State’s office has also budgeted some of its HAVA grant to fund cybersecurity training for state and county election staff.

“Right now we’re doing it," Stapleton says, "Even as we speak, we’re conducting some partnerships with the National Guard, with the Department of Homeland security. So, they're the ones — with our permisison — that are trying to penetrate our system.” 

Stapleton says amid that testing, some employees in the state’s top election office have fallen into the trap of phishing emails.

"We did some training right here in our own office. And even after we told people to not open up suspicious emails, we had a phishing email that went out, and we had a lot of people opening it."

A poll from NPR News and Marist College conducted earlier this month found that 38 percent of adults nationally think the U.S. is not very prepared or not prepared at all to keep this fall’s midterm elections safe and secure.

That poll of 949 adults found that more people have confidence in their state and local election officials than federal election officials to protect the actual results of the midterm election.

Montana uses paper voting ballots, which are widely considered the most secure method of voting, according to said Montana was “Generally Good” in a 2012 state-by-state look at election preparedness.

A February 2018 report from the Center for American Progress stated that Montana follows some cyber security best practices related to voter registration systems, but there was room to improve election security in the state.

Montana received a ‘C’ score its election security from CAP. In that report, 12 states scored higher than a ‘C’ and no states received  an ‘A’.

Absentee ballots for Montana military and overseas voters will be sent September 21.

Regular voter registration will close on October 9. Standard absentee ballots will be sent out no later than October 12.