Guest Host: Lisa Desjardins

A voter fills out their ballot as they vote in the Florida primary on August 30 in Miami, Florida.

A voter fills out their ballot as they vote in the Florida primary on August 30 in Miami, Florida.

We have results from one of the last big primary nights of the year Florida and Arizona voted — and projections show that big-name incumbents held their ground. Republican senators John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, also of Florida, have been declared winners. Incumbent wins normally would not be news… but this election season, all bets seem to be off. We’ll talk about what the primary votes in states around the country may signal about results in November, plus take a look at a big general election story — security concerns in state election systems.


  • Stuart Rothenberg Founding editor of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report; columnist, The Washington Post's PowerPost
  • Dana Milbank Syndicated columnist, The Washington Post
  • Ken Menzel General counsel, Illinois Election Board
  • Alex Halderman Professor, computer science and engineering, director, center for security and society, The University of Michigan
  • Brig Gen (Ret) Steve Spano President, chief operating officer, Center for Internet Security


  • 10:06:54

    MS. LISA DESJARDINSThanks for joining us. I'm Lisa Desjardins of the PBS NewsHour sitting in for Diane Rehm. Primary voters in Florida and Arizona have defied the wild, unpredictable nature of 2016 and voted for the traditional last night, backing incumbent Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both of whom faced well-funded insurgent challengers.

  • 10:07:16

    MS. LISA DESJARDINSRepublican Marco Rubio in Florida won his primary as well. Joining me to talk about these races, the insights they offer into November, plus the growing concerns about hackers being able to break into state election systems are Dana Milbank of The Washington Post and from a studio at Princeton, Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan. Thank you both for joining us.

  • 10:07:39

    MR. DANA MILBANKGood to be with you.

  • 10:07:41

    DESJARDINSFirst, we're going to -- thanks for joining us, Alex, I appreciate it. First, we're gonna go to the phones, though, and Stu Rothenberg, friend of the program and also of the Rothenberg and Gonzalez Political Report, to talk about last night's results. Stu, let's talk about John McCain. His race was described as a tightrope for him to walk. In the end, it wasn't close, but neither was it a blowout. Can you tell us why this is a tough time for John McCain?

  • 10:08:07

    MR. STU ROTHENBERGWell, first of all, hi, Lisa. Nice to talk to you. You know, John McCain has always had a reputation and, in fact, a record of political independence and he's always balancing his support among the Republican establishment with his message of being an agent of change, something of a political outsider, even though he's been in officer for decades. And conservatives feel conflicted about John McCain. Sometimes he's with them, many times he's against them and is critical of them.

  • 10:08:45

    MR. STU ROTHENBERGAnd so he constantly has to balance this within the party and this year, it's even more complicated. Now, you add on top of that Donald Trump and his need to balance Republicans versus independents in the general election and appeal -- crossover appeal to Democrats and it's more complicated. Donald Trump, obviously, is a huge personality. There is a chance he will define the Republican party in November. He isn't doing that right quite yet.

  • 10:09:17

    MR. STU ROTHENBERGBut for somebody like John McCain who has these -- already had issues inside his party, it adds to the complication.

  • 10:09:24

    DESJARDINSI know Senator McCain has had sort of out and out rebellion sometimes at Republican conventions in his state and he didn't win every county last night in the primary, but he won, by far, the biggest ones. Can you talk about his general election fight? He's facing a member of Congress, Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick. And it's interesting, they're almost too different.

  • 10:09:43

    DESJARDINSShe's a six-year incumbent. He's been in the Senate since 1987. I notice he had an 80th birthday this week even. You talk about this general election battle coming up?

  • 10:09:52

    ROTHENBERGSure, sure. So Ann Kirkpatrick has been elected to Congress. She also lost one race. She is a, I would say, fairly mainstream Democrat, generally liberal on most issues. A bit of a surprise, frankly, that she decided to run for the U.S. Senate against McCain because he is such a big figure and traditionally Arizona is such a good Republican states. Obviously, Kelly Ward, the Democrat -- the Republican primary challenger who lost to John McCain yesterday, raised this issue of age.

  • 10:10:30

    ROTHENBERGAnd it's always a delicate issue in American politics. Has a member of Congress been in too long? What constitutes too long? And I think there -- anytime anybody talks about how long McCain's been around, there's a -- it's a delicate way of raising this question. The problem for Ann Kirkpatrick, as it was for Kelly Ward is, John McCain seems extremely energetic. This is not a member of the Senate who has overstayed his length of time in Washington.

  • 10:11:10

    ROTHENBERGJohn McCain doesn't give off that vibe. He's very focused on issues. He can talk about the issues. He can talk about accomplishments. I think based...

  • 10:11:18

    DESJARDINSHe's definitely not relying on surrogates on the campaign trail. He's out there doing it.

  • 10:11:21

    ROTHENBERGYeah, he -- well, the problem for McCain is, does he get squeezed by Donald Trump? Does he hold Republican voters? Does he hold particularly conservatives as he reaches out to independents? I think Ann Kirkpatrick -- it's really funny. If you listen to Kelly Ward, John McCain was this left wing, old-time guy who needed to be thrown out and then you listen to Ann Kirkpatrick and John McCain is this -- is attached to Donald Trump and he's this crazy right-winger who needs to be thrown out.

  • 10:11:50

    ROTHENBERGSo we'll see how the race unfolds. Right now, it is not a top, top tier race. It is a kind of second tier Democratic opportunity. Ann Kirkpatrick has to really make the case against John McCain.

  • 10:12:03

    DESJARDINSJohn, let's look at Florida -- I'm sorry, Stu, let's look at Florida. And I was thinking John McCain in my head. But talking about Florida, let's talk about Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her win last night. As John McCain had an opponent battle him from the right, she had an opponent from the left. I'm sure we have listeners who are Bernie Sanders fans and know that Bernie Sanders endorsed her opponent. But in the end, she was victorious. Is that it?

  • 10:12:27

    DESJARDINSIs Debbie Wasserman Schultz now returning to Congress? I know she's got a Democratic district.

  • 10:12:32

    ROTHENBERGYeah, of course. She is going to return to Congress. And what you saw was, as with McCain, a divided party, but one, in this case, where Debbie Wasserman Schultz had a majority. I think she won by a narrow double-digit majority. That is a low double-digit majority.

  • 10:12:46

    DESJARDINSThat's right. About 7,000 votes, I think, is how she's -- what she won by.

  • 10:12:50

    ROTHENBERGLet's remember that although Tim Canova, who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, and was running as a Bernie Sanders advocate and alternative to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Sanders did not go down at the end of the campaign and campaign for Canova. This is one of those cases where, you know, Debbie Wasserman Schultz has picked up plenty baggage over the past few weeks and months with the Wikileaks of the memos at the DNC where the national party committee was, surprise, surprise, clearly tilting toward former Secretary Clinton.

  • 10:13:22

    ROTHENBERGSo what you see is there are enough Democratic regulars. Wasserman Schultz has been around long enough that she was able to hold on. It was not -- again, like McCain, it was not overwhelming, but it was a pretty clear win. So it was generally a good night in Florida for the establishment, whether you were part of the Republican or Democratic establishment. But there were indications in these two races, the Arizona Senate race and the Florida race, that there's a churning inside the Democratic and Republican parties.

  • 10:13:56

    ROTHENBERGAnd that's what we've seen for the last year, right? They both -- I mean, in the presidential race.

  • 10:14:00

    DESJARDINSRight. And we also have now maybe the real banner race in Florida when we talk about Congress and Senate race. Marco Rubio won last night. No shock. It was a blowout win, as expected, in his primary. Now, he faces a fellow member of Congress. And what I'm curious about is that race is still relatively close, even though his opponent has had some real problems in the press. Can you talk about what's going on in Florida? Why is this race so close? What are the dynamics there in the Senate race?

  • 10:14:30

    ROTHENBERGSure. Sure. So Marco Rubio defeated Carlos Beruff by over 50 points in what was a blowout. And Patrick Murphy had a comfortable win over another Democratic congressmen, Alan Grayson. In the case of Rubio, it's funny. I talked to somebody shortly after Rubio got into the Senate race, which he said, of course, he was not going to run for reelection and he changed his mind. And I was told that the polling, early polling after he got in the race was shocking.

  • 10:14:58

    ROTHENBERGMany Republicans expected that his numbers would be poor, that voters would be upset about his presidential run, that he didn't pay any attention to Florida. That was not the case. The early polls when he got back in that race showed he was quite popular among Republicans and had a huge advantage over Beruff. So now we go to the general election and we have Patrick Murphy who has a reputation over the years as a pragmatic Democrat. A pragmatic Democrat, somebody who comes out the business community, young, and agent of change.

  • 10:15:29

    ROTHENBERGAnd what happens? There are a couple stories on a local TV station, local news, that portrayed Murphy as, frankly, a lightweight who benefitted from his father's pushing him and his father's bankrolling his candidacy and there...

  • 10:15:44

    DESJARDINSWell, he has some issues with his past resume and past claims he had made and sort of took a vacation, you know, famously in the middle of the campaign.

  • 10:15:53

    ROTHENBERGYeah, here's what I...

  • 10:15:53

    DESJARDINSVery sort of color issues, yes.

  • 10:15:55

    ROTHENBERGYeah. Here's what I say about this in Florida, why it starts off close, although Rubio's ahead. We always joke about the folks in Florida. You know what people in Florida really pay attention to? They pay attention to traffic, weather and local crime. And Florida is a classic case where voters don't really start to engage until late. There are a number of states like that. New Jersey is like that, that has (word?) out of the state that don't focus on New Jersey issues.

  • 10:16:21

    ROTHENBERGAnd North Carolina, to some extent, is like that. So I think what you're going to see in Florida now that we have the general election, Rubio's Republican supporters are firming up. Murphy's Democratic supporters are firming up. It's going to be a close competitive race with Rubio having a narrow advantage. And we'll see to the extent which Trump hurts Rubio and/or Murphy can remind people that Marco Rubio really didn't care about Florida and was going to leave the state for a presidential race and it's all about his personal ambition.

  • 10:16:52

    ROTHENBERGAnd Rubio's going to try to turn that around about Murphy, personal and (word?)

  • 10:16:56

    DESJARDINSOkay. Stu, this is great. What a fantastic geek-out on a Wednesday morning. One last brief question. One race that you want to watch now, that you think will tell us what's going to happen in the Senate. I know one race is a tough thing to pin someone down on.

  • 10:17:10

    ROTHENBERGNo, I probably -- one race, I would pick New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte and Maggie Hassan. This is the kind of race that will tell us a lot about Donald Trump's impact down ballot. Kelly Ayotte, a very appealing, pragmatic conservative Republican senator. Maggie Hassan, an experienced multi-term Democratic governor. Most insiders think that if the presidential race is close in New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte can figure out a way to win the race. But if Donald Trump tanks in the state, if he loses the state by 8, 10, 12 points, there's no way Ayotte can win.

  • 10:17:49

    ROTHENBERGSo if you're looking for a Senate race where you measure the Trump impact on the general election, keep an eye on New Hampshire.

  • 10:17:55

    DESJARDINSStu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Gonzalez Report. Thank you so much, Stu.

  • 10:17:59

    ROTHENBERGSure, my pleasure, Lisa.

  • 10:18:01

    DESJARDINSAll right. And you can call us at 1-800-433-8850. Email us at or join us on Facebook. We're going to take a quick break, but join us right after.

  • 10:20:01

    DESJARDINSAnd welcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And Dickens-like, we now turn from election past, the one last night, to the election of the future and the general election. In the past day we've seen reports and in fact FBI warnings about hacking of election systems in Arizona and Illinois. Joining me to talk about this now we have Dana Milbank of the Washington Post and also Alex Halderman, professor of computer science and engineering at The University of Michigan.

  • 10:20:31

    DESJARDINSI want to start with you, Dana. You're concerned about an October surprise because of all of this hacking. What are you worried about? What do you think could happen here?

  • 10:20:37

    MILBANKWell, what would be really surprising is if the Russians weren't involved in this election in some way. They've been -- it's been documented they've been involved in some way in some 15 different European countries in trying to if not influence the results at least cause havoc and instability with their support for either far-right or far-left parties there. So we are -- it's not surprising that we're going to see something like that here.

  • 10:21:03

    DESJARDINSAnd we should say in these state cases, we don't know that it's the Russians yet, but they're highly suspect.

  • 10:21:09

    MILBANKYes, when you round up the usual suspects, the Russians are the best at this game. They've been playing this game in a lot of different countries, and -- but they are virtually universally suspected of being behind the Democratic National Committee hacks, going after George Soros. They've just been in a lot of corporate hacks, financial hacks.

  • 10:21:32

    MILBANKI don't think the concern is that they can actually influence the election, but they can cast doubt of the legitimacy of the election. We saw that they can make headaches for Hillary Clinton, as they did right before the Democratic convention, and indeed we were just talking about Debbie Wasserman Schultz, she's largely out of her job because of Vladimir Putin and the Russian hackers.

  • 10:21:48

    DESJARDINSRight, and the DNC emails that they found.

  • 10:21:51

    MILBANKIndeed, indeed.

  • 10:21:51

    DESJARDINSWhich showed perhaps a bias towards Bernie Sanders or...

  • 10:21:54

    MILBANKYes, and there's a real question, well, how are they so sophisticated that they know how to leak just the right emails to WikiLeaks that will -- that will embarrass the Democrats. They've leaked opposition research. They've leaked the phone numbers and emails of Democratic members of Congress. They can cause havoc. They may not be able to actually alter the election but can create an environment where people have doubts about the election. They can -- this is the idea, sort of the cyber warfare is to make the United States appear weaker.

  • 10:22:29

    DESJARDINSBut yeah, what does that get the Russians?

  • 10:22:29

    MILBANKWell look, I mean, I don't think it's any mystery to your listeners that Vladimir Putin has been trying to rebuild a Russian empire and regretting the collapse of the Soviet Union. So anything that is perceived to weaken or make his adversaries look illegitimate, weaken bonds between allies, we saw that widely suspected Putin involvement in Brexit in Britain. So, you know, certainly Trump has the ability to create instability here in the United States and friction with our allies. That's a place where Putin would very much like to be.

  • 10:23:14

    DESJARDINSThese hacks are coming at the same time as there's another voter discussion about voter fraud happening from the Republican side, especially Donald Trump, as you mentioned, questioning, saying the system is rigged, saying that there is, he claims, rampant voter fraud. What do we know about actual voter fraud? And again, we're going to come back to hacking, and we're going to talk to an official from Illinois about that, but I want to talk about voter fraud for a second. What do we know about how much voter fraud actually exists?

  • 10:23:40

    MILBANKWell, I mean, actual voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, and there are all kinds of safeguards in place. What's been happening is a lot of states have tried these voter ID laws, which Democrats say is really trying to repress minority turnout, and the Republicans have said it's about the integrity of the elections. A lot of these have been knocked down by the courts.

  • 10:24:01

    MILBANKSo when Donald Trump is talking about the election being rigged, that's what he's talking about. He's not talking about the Russians getting involved here. We're talking about two different types of rigging of this election. In fact if the election is rigged, it's probably being rigged in Donald Trump's favor by the Russian hackers. But there are already a lot of doubts on the right about the integrity of the election because often Republicans and conservatives keep talking about that.

  • 10:24:25

    MILBANKYou have Roger Stone, an informal advisor to Donald Trump, saying he needs to start, you know, talking about the elections being rigged and how there's going to be a rhetorical bloodbath if he loses the election so that they can basically say if Donald Trump loses, it was because it was stacked against him.

  • 10:24:42

    DESJARDINSAnd on both sides, you're saying much of this is about the optics, much of this is about controlling the story, making perception reality in a way.

  • 10:24:49

    MILBANKYes, it doesn't appear that, you know, when we're talking about the Russians at least so far to get into -- the suspected Russian efforts to get into election systems is not -- they're not actually been able to manipulate anything, but they do want to create an appearance that there is some monkey business going on.

  • 10:25:05

    DESJARDINSAnd on that note we have someone who knows a great deal about what's happening right now in this hacking story. Joining us by phone from Chicago is Ken Menzel, general counsel for the Illinois Election Board. Ken, thank you so much for joining us in what I can imagine would usually be a busy time and is now even more tricky. What can you tell us about the recent incursion in Illinois and how you think it could affect, or will it, your voting system this fall.

  • 10:25:32

    MR. KEN MENZELThere's not really going to be any sort of effect on the voting system for the fall with regard to the Illinois intrusion. We had someone, as yet unknown, although you've already been discussing these suspicions, someone got in to view the statewide voter database and was able to see a small portion of the records within it. They weren't able to alter or change or add anything, and that state voter database isn't what's used by the generally country-level authorities who run the elections on election day.

  • 10:26:10

    MR. KEN MENZELSo tampering with that state database isn't something that would upend the voter rolls when people go to vote.

  • 10:26:18


  • 10:26:19

    MENZELAnd as far as the integrity of the counting system, vote tabulation is done on an entirely separate and unconnected system, and the vote tabulation system isn't Internet-connected, in part to protect against the very fears that people have of foreign interference.

  • 10:26:36

    DESJARDINSIs there any concern, I know there is some -- some are worried that these systems that are not Internet-connected could still be vulnerable because they rely on older software, that someone could even get into the system, become part of your system and then have easy access to the voter rolls. How do you all look at that?

  • 10:26:56

    MENZELWell, I mean indeed the tabulation systems that are out there are mostly ones that came in place after the Help America Vote Act and the money, the federal money that flowed into the states to buy new technologies. So that technology is indeed getting to the end of its useful lifespan. It wasn't necessarily the most cutting-edge computer technology even at the time, and of course as we all know, the computer industry moves at light speed sort of pace for advancements.

  • 10:27:29

    MENZELSo, I mean, the next generation of stuff, which should be coming on in the next few years, as the last generation ends its useful lifespan, will be better technology. But what we're using now is stuff that we are familiar with. The people in the industry have an understanding of their own systems and their vulnerabilities, and while there are vulnerabilities, the trick is to create checks and balances and protections so that those cannot be exploited.

  • 10:27:57

    MENZELAnd of course one of those big protections is that you don't Internet-connect anything.

  • 10:28:02

    DESJARDINSThe trick is to create checks and balances. I definitely appreciate that statement. Ken Menzel from the Illinois Election Board, thank you so much for joining us, and good luck to you this fall.

  • 10:28:11

    MENZELThank you.

  • 10:28:12

    DESJARDINSGreat. I now want to go to Alex Halderman, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan. He's joining us by phone from Princeton. Alex, we just heard from Illinois, what sounded like a pretty optimistic, no-big-deal sort of reaction, not to say there aren't improvements that are needed, but Illinois does not seem too concerned about this incursion. What do you say to that?

  • 10:28:33

    MR. ALEX HALDERMANWell good morning.

  • 10:28:35

    DESJARDINSGood morning.

  • 10:28:36

    HALDERMANThese incursions are basically a sign that there are some attackers who are casing our election systems, looking for signs of weakness. This is what we'd expect would be the first step in a more sophisticated, persistent attack. And what we've seen in other kinds of state-level attacks on pieces of critical infrastructure is that it often starts with this kind of information gathering. Our election system, unfortunately in many states, still relies on technology that is known to be secure, that has been shown to be insecure through more than 10 years of research by computer scientists and is badly obsolete.

  • 10:29:23

    HALDERMANSo elections unfortunately aren't the sexiest kind of computer technology, but as...

  • 10:29:30

    DESJARDINSBut shouldn't they be? I mean, they are so critical.

  • 10:29:34

    HALDERMANBut they are so critical, that's right, and it's just a terrible shame that we've badly and persistently under-invested in the kind of technology that we need to keep our elections secure.

  • 10:29:46

    DESJARDINSI want to talk to another expert in this matter. We have former -- retired Brigadier General Steve Spano. He's now president and chief operating officer at the Center for Internet Security, also used to be general manager for global security for Amazon Web Services, which is another very big job. General Spano, thank you for joining us. How do you respond to this? What are your concerns about the outdated software we have and about the very current hacking attempts on our election system?

  • 10:30:14

    BRIG GENYes, so the current hacking attempts from our mission perspective of monitoring networks is a little bit different in the sense that we are -- because there are no connections for online voting, the concerns over that are a little bit smaller, as the other guests have pointed out.

  • 10:30:36

    DESJARDINSCan you explain that a little bit more? I think to the average person, they think I go online, and I'm vulnerable, and my vote is vulnerable.

  • 10:30:43

    GENSure, well, but since there is no online voting, the issue of tampering with online systems...

  • 10:30:49

    DESJARDINSBut there is online registration.

  • 10:30:51

    GENThere is online registration, and yes, there are ways of gaining access into those systems that would have to be addressed by each of the states and the local governments. From our perspective, we monitor the incoming traffic into some of the states, and that's done depending on what the state architectures are for those networks.

  • 10:31:13

    GENAnd so from our perspective, anything that is connected does have some forms of vulnerabilities that would have to be addressed by each of the states and local governments.

  • 10:31:24

    DESJARDINSOkay, but you're saying that the -- is it the majority of our state elections systems that are not connected to the Internet?

  • 10:31:30

    GENFor online registration?

  • 10:31:31

    DESJARDINSI'm sorry, I'll be clearer, for voting. For voting in the fall, are most -- are most state systems connected to the Internet or not?

  • 10:31:39

    GENCorrect, no. Only two states have online voting, Hawaii, and they do that by absentee ballot and for specific disabled under certain guidelines, and Alaska does online voting for everybody. However, they do it with some specific instructions that each online vote has to be notarized to verify that the person who cast that vote did in fact -- is in fact that person who voted.

  • 10:32:10


  • 10:32:10

    GENBut for the rest of the nation, there is no online voting, and therefore the best means then of tampering would be either with the election day voting stand-alone systems or through the registration process.

  • 10:32:26

    DESJARDINSI'm Lisa Desjardins. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And we want to hear from you. What are your concerns about our voting system? What do you think about vulnerability? Call us at 1-800-433-8850. Or send us your email at Join us on Facebook or on Twitter.

  • 10:32:46

    DESJARDINSAll right, so back to you, then, Dana Milbank. Would -- we've had the experts here say that we are clearly under attack, our systems so far have some strengths to them, but they have an out-of-date vulnerability. Does this again get into -- is all of this -- how do you ferret out the facts from the perception, which is what you're getting at, that we land with this fall?

  • 10:33:08

    MILBANKRight, I think if you're listening to the experts, it should be reassuring that there's not really the possibility of widespread manipulation. But of course people are not going to be diving in the way you just did with these experts, and there is -- people are primed to suspect people are up to no good. I mean, think back to -- all the way back to the 2000 election, when there was all these crazy questions about Diebold voting machines and how that stole it from Al Gore for George W. Bush. This is, you know, it's not a right or left thing. There are plenty of people on both sides who like to believe that there are conspiracies about.

  • 10:33:47

    MILBANKSo really this is all the hackers needed to do was to say ha-ha, we can get into the system to allow people to say the election is really, and really whoever wins, it's illegitimate. That weakens the winner of the election. That weakens the United States. That's what the cyber warfare is about.

  • 10:34:08

    DESJARDINSYou're going to into this fall, obviously there are many swirling contentions, and this goes back to you again, Dana. We've talked about the Democrats, obviously their emails being hacked. We talked about Trump putting out this idea of a rigged system. Have you heard any other Republican or Democratic candidates who may be in trouble start to raise this idea that they're worried about credibility of the election?

  • 10:34:26

    MILBANKIt has always happened in the past. So, you know, I've not heard particular individual candidates.

  • 10:34:36

    DESJARDINSWe should be ready.

  • 10:34:36

    MILBANKIn retrospect, I'm sure when they lose the election by a few votes, they'll be raising these sorts of concerns. You know, the problem is suppose Trump loses, as polls indicate he does, Republicans want to rebuild their party, how do they do that if all those people who voted for Trump think the election was stolen and that there was nothing wrong with his message? So it has a real political impact going forward, even if these hackers are having no, you know, strong impact on the election.

  • 10:35:10

    MILBANKThe hackers are having a very real impact on the election, as we saw with the Democratic National Committee. What we also saw with the hack of the Soros documents, they aren't just stealing these documents and posting them, they're stealing them, editing them, in a sense falsifying them, and then putting them online. That's what concerns me about the October surprise is that you could have something that appears to be legitimate documents dumped out on a WikiLeaks or something like that that in fact are manipulated. People might learn that eventually but not...

  • 10:35:40

    DESJARDINSThe headline goes out, and only later...

  • 10:35:41

    MILBANKRight, the headline's out, the election's decided, and only later do we realize...

  • 10:35:42

    DESJARDINSDo we find out it was bogus.

  • 10:35:44

    MILBANKExactly. That's my concern about the October surprise. I mean, I'm not, you know, necessarily one to engage in conspiracy theories, but it's certainly the sort of thing that would not be very hard for Russian hackers to do, not suggesting...

  • 10:35:59

    DESJARDINSWell, there is sort of a ribbon of Cold War conspiracy running through the stories these days.

  • 10:36:05

    MILBANKSure, I mean, this is -- you know, we go back to the Cold War when Russian disinformation was, you know, convincing everybody that AIDS was a CIA plot, so -- and the fact that we see evidence of this hacking now. It doesn't say that Trump is necessarily involved in this. They may -- he may know nothing about it, and they're doing it on his behalf.

  • 10:36:23

    DESJARDINSAlex Halderman, let's talk about Russia quickly. What it -- why do we believe that Russia is involved? How strong is the evidence? It seems to be the FBI came out with the DNC emails, but when we look at Arizona and Illinois, what do we know?

  • 10:36:38

    HALDERMANWell, what we do know is that there were attempts to connect and hack into the online voter registration systems in both states that came from IP addresses that have in the past been associated with threat actors in Russia. Now attribution is always very hard, and it could be that someone else is just trying to make us believe that it's Russia that's involved. But the thing is attacks like this typically are -- are not observed in real time. We often only discover that they happen three or six months after they occurred. So it may be many more months before we realize the whole extent of the problem.

  • 10:37:21

    DESJARDINSAll right, we're going to take a short break here to run some antivirus software, and we would love to take your calls. Give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. And stay with us. We'll be right back.

  • 10:40:02

    DESJARDINSAnd welcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about our election system, how secure it is and what the vulnerabilities are. And we've got some very high-quality guests who've spent years studying this topic. I want to go to retired Air Force Brigadier General Steve Spano. He's with the Center for Internet Security. General Spano, we're getting a lot of questions.

  • 10:40:21

    DESJARDINSAnd one of them is an email from someone named Scott McNab (sp?), who writes, "A country cannot cut, cut, cut and maintain itself." He writes, "Our schools, roads, bridges and power grids are quickly becoming third-world quality. And now add to it our voting technology." General Spano, how behind are we in funding internet security, especially for important government infrastructure like our elections?

  • 10:40:46

    GENWell, first, I do want to make one slight correction. In my previous title I was not in charge of global security for Amazon, although I was in charge of leading and managing the DOD and Intel team. So truth in lending, I don't want to portray myself at all…

  • 10:41:03

    DESJARDINSWe love accuracy. That's great.

  • 10:41:04

    GEN…as having to run all of Amazon security. I do want to make that correction. In terms of the funding piece, you know, every organization is challenged with a specific budget and outlining it. And whenever there are challenges in the areas of cyber security the funding, personnel challenges of training people, of hiring enough people, the cyber workforce is zero unemployment. There's a lot of competition for top talent within a cyber security environment.

  • 10:41:35

    GENAnd governments have a challenging time competing with the private sector, in terms of acquiring that top talent. So leveraging investments is a part of any business, in any organization, of how they structure their budget based upon all of their needs. And this happens to be one of those existing needs that has to be addressed.

  • 10:42:00

    DESJARDINSBut, you know, one of the complaints about government is that it's not run like a business. You know, whatever needs government has, especially in the long term, seem to be easily ignored.

  • 10:42:10

    GENYes, those are, you know, certainly policy questions and decisions that both the voter, electorate will have to address. Certainly not within the sphere of our framework, acquisition systems within government for competitive reasons look at least-cost technically acceptable as a means of acquiring a lot of our ITS. That's as well as other acquisitions within federal government. But there's a reason for that. And so how do you balance both the need to provide a fair and competitive access, but yet insure that the acquisition systems are actually acquiring, you know, the best of breed and integrating them in a way that is effective?

  • 10:42:57

    DESJARDINSAlex Halderman, with the Center for Computer Security and Society, we're getting a number of emails that are on this line. A tweet in fact from Jordan Hayes (sp?). He writes, "With all the potential for hacks on electronic voting systems, why not vote with pen and paper? Let someone hack that." And we have the same idea from Nicole LeBlanc (sp?). "How easy," oh, I'm sorry, that's a different email. But the question out there is about why don't we just use pen and paper as 19th century as that sounds?

  • 10:43:26

    HALDERMANYes. Well, it turns out that having some kind of physical record of how people voted is just about the best defense that we can provide. So the problem with many computer-based voting systems is that the outcome of the election depends entirely on who controls some piece of invisible computer software that's running in the machines. And if I can hack into it or Russia can hack into it and change that software, you can change the result.

  • 10:43:52

    HALDERMANSo the state of the art is to combine some form of paper ballot that the voter fills in with a computer scanner that reads the paper and produces the initial results. The beauty there is that we can have an auditable record to go back and check to make sure that the computers weren't being dishonest.

  • 10:44:14

    DESJARDINSThat leads to my question from Nicole LeBlanc. I felt it was coming. She writes, "In Dallas County, Texas, we use electronic voting for early voting only. On Election Day we use the optical scan system." Which I know many of our listeners probably do. It's where you bubble in the paper ballot and then you feed it in, just as you were saying, Alex. Alex, "How easy," she asks, "would it be to hacker or tamper with optical scan machines that are reading those ballots?" Say you're an election official or a group of election officials at a polling place, if you wanted to, could you tamper with those optical scanners?

  • 10:44:46

    HALDERMANWell, you could tamper with the optical scanners, at least in theory, to cause them to produce the wrong result. But the beauty of having those paper records is we have something where we can go back and check. Now, the problem is that in many states they'll never actually go back and look at those pieces of paper, unless there's an extremely close election or a dispute. And that's actually another area where there's much room for improvement in state regulations, in terms of when are you going to do an audit.

  • 10:45:17

    HALDERMANWe actually have very good technology now for doing what's called a statistical risk-limiting audit, where you look at just as many pieces of paper as are necessary to convince yourself with say 99 percent certainty that the outcome is correct. So it doesn't have to…

  • 10:45:32

    DESJARDINSSort of a poll of the votes that you have in hand.

  • 10:45:35

    HALDERMANThat's right. It doesn't have to be hard or expensive. But we need better procedures for when we're going to go and actually look at those pieces of paper. They don't do you any good if you never look at them.

  • 10:45:45

    DESJARDINSDana Milbank, why do you think there is so much fear this year about our election system?

  • 10:45:50

    MILBANKWell, there's so much fear this year about everything.

  • 10:45:52


  • 10:45:53

    MILBANKSo why shouldn't there be a fear about the election system. And, as we've discussed, this is not a new concern. It goes back, you know, at least until the 2000 election. And of course, the, you know, we're talking about election security here. Obviously, we hope our government is doing more than we know on cyber security, involving, say, our military and the financial systems, which their collapse could be even more devastating…

  • 10:46:20


  • 10:46:21

    MILBANK…than disrupting the…

  • 10:46:22

    DESJARDINSAnyone watching the show, "Mr. Robot."

  • 10:46:24

    MILBANKYeah, for…

  • 10:46:25

    DESJARDINSYou know, that show revolves around that kind of idea.

  • 10:46:28

    MILBANK…example. Now, what's interesting is the concerns about the voting are actually at odds with trying to improve the system. If there were online voting widespread there'd be much larger participation, which would solve some of our other sort of civic engagement problems. But you can't go to that kind of system for the reasons these people have just been discussing.

  • 10:46:49

    DESJARDINSWe talked about funding. You and I have seen each other at the Capitol many, many times on many different debates that involved funding. Why isn't this a bipartisan issue, more funding? I know that obviously the states run our election systems, by and large. But why don't we have bipartisan support for more funding?

  • 10:47:04

    MILBANKWell, I think what you've had is you have a very polarized in all manners right now. And the conservatives in the Republican Party are quite anti-government at this point. And you've seen this pattern of cutting funding to a whole wide variety of agencies. Those agencies then fail. And they say, a-ha, government doesn't work. We need to cut its funding. So it, you know, it's not surprising that when you starve the beast the beast does not perform as well as it was originally.

  • 10:47:34

    DESJARDINSI want to go to the phones now and Susannah in Washington, D.C. Susannah, you have a particular interest in this question and you also have something you'd like to clarify or add to our conversation. What's on your mind?

  • 10:47:47

    SUSANNAHThank you for taking my call. I work for Common Cause and we have a voting integrity division. And I did want to clarify one point, which is that 32 states now allow online voting for overseas and military voters, with the exception for Alaska, which allows it for all absentee voters. So…

  • 10:48:10

    DESJARDINSThat's great to know. I know we had said earlier just Alaska and Hawaii had online voting. But you wanted to add that for overseas voters, 32 states do that. Wow.

  • 10:48:18

    SUSANNAHYes, that's correct. In some states it's more restricted, they only -- in six states they only allow it for voters in hostile fire zones and, you know, so discretely for the military. But it is a factor. Those votes are vulnerable. We can't protect them. There is no paper record, as Alex points out. That's (unintelligible). We -- the technologist who love technology the most are the first ones to say we need to vote on paper and we need to use it to protect the vote. So…

  • 10:48:50

    DESJARDINSIt's a lovely irony.

  • 10:48:53

    SUSANNAHIt is.

  • 10:48:53

    DESJARDINSIs that what keeps you up at night, Susannah? You've obviously spent a lot of time on this, but when we talk about bipartisan issues in the system and the actual infrastructure of the system. Is that what worries you the most?

  • 10:49:04

    SUSANNAHIt worries me and it's the work that I've been doing. And I'm just really grateful that we've had so many -- we have great partners in the computer science community like Alex. And we also have a lot of great partners -- election officials are on the front lines of this. They are woefully underfunded. They are making do with what they have. And, you know, we would -- I would like a give a shout out to them for, you know, really making it work…

  • 10:49:31


  • 10:49:32

    SUSANNAH…with what they have. And to also point out that we can have, you know, we can have confidence in our systems, but at the same time recognize that we need to prepare for these kinds of attacks by having paper backups, by having, Alex said, you know, use the paper in a post-election audit. We need to do that. More states need to institute these post-election audits. But, yes, I've been at this job a long time and have lost some sleep.

  • 10:50:01

    DESJARDINSSusannah, thank you so much. I hope you get sleep, at least tonight. Thank you for calling. General Spano, I want to go back to you and ask you to give us a sense of what keeps you up at night on this topic right now, our election system.

  • 10:50:16

    GENOn the election system I sleep pretty well at night because of the fact that, you know, there is no internet online voting, as we've already talked about, except the exceptions where some states are experimenting with it, and as we talked about, Alaska and Hawaii or absentee voters and combat zones, etcetera.

  • 10:50:39

    DESJARDINSOkay. You know, Alex, pointed out that these attacks -- we often don't get word of them -- we don't, the public -- until months after. Obviously, in the cyber security sphere you all have notice before we do. But if there is such a lag, how do we know on Election Day that everything going well?

  • 10:50:58

    GENYou know, that's a great question. I think because it's so distributed that each state and county has different varieties of systems. Those are the challenges, in terms of legacy systems that need to be replaced. Or, you know, who developed the voting systems themselves, who wrote the software, how -- when was the software last patched, are there third parties that contributed to writing the software that went into a voting system and so on and so forth.

  • 10:51:28

    GENBut there are point types solutions that certainly, if you were to pick key counties and key swing states, that if you somehow were able to gain, you know, some force of physical access to be able to either modify software or other forms of attack that might change the outcome of a specific county or -- it could certainly impact the election. But from the perspective of our mission, of monitoring, you know, sort of the state networks as we do with our partners at DHS, we're not seeing any of that because there is such a restriction on online voting activity.

  • 10:52:12


  • 10:52:13

    GENIt would be certainly in the areas of registration, where there is internet voting and, you know, the systems and networks that are attached to those state voter registration systems certainly are susceptible to the same types of attacks as anything else, you know, that might be connected to or from the internet.

  • 10:52:33

    DESJARDINSOkay. I'm Lisa Desjardins. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." All right. And let's go back to the phones and Tom, in Jacksonville, Fla.

  • 10:52:43

    TOMHi. Thanks for taking my call. We've talked about online voting and how limited that is. And we've talked about voter registration. But my concern and my question would be, when the counties and the states are reporting nationally their results, are they not doing it online to the federal -- where they're reporting? And is there not a possibility for the actually results to be altered?

  • 10:53:09

    DESJARDINSGreat question. Thank you, Tom. Essentially asking, can just the posting of results, can just that final step be hacked or be tampered with? And I'm gonna go to Alex, who I see raising his hand over Skype. Alex, you know, as a reporter I have to think about all these kinds of questions. And I love this question for that reason. Is it possible to just simply hack the end result, the results?

  • 10:53:30

    HALDERMANYes. Well, that end result is obviously coming from a system that's connected to the internet. And that process of taking the votes from jurisdictions all over a state and combining them, that final tabulation step potentially could be hacked. And it could cause disruption. But the advantage there is that we do have a process in place in most states to compare the results that are coming from individual jurisdictions with what is eventually reported by the state.

  • 10:53:59

    HALDERMANYou can have observers from the political parties at polling places who hear the result announced locally, and then check to make sure that matches what went into that final tabulation. So there's at least an opportunity to catch it. But if someone were to cause the wrong result to be announced, that could be hugely disruptive, even if it was eventually corrected.

  • 10:54:17

    DESJARDINSEspecially in real time, as we're seeing in a presidential where you see different zones of the country vote at different times. It's not a good scenario. Thank you -- yeah?

  • 10:54:27

    HALDERMANBut if I wanted to hack these systems, though, I wouldn't be targeting that final step. I would be targeting the individual voting machines. They may not be connected to the internet, but that doesn't mean they're safe. Because the ballot designs are being loaded into them from another system that may at times be connected to the internet. So it takes a more sophisticated attack then maybe your everyday run-of-the-mill hacker could do to get into some of these machines. But it's certainly possible for someone with the resources of a nation state like Russia.

  • 10:54:59

    DESJARDINSThat leads to my final question for each of you, briefly. Alex, what needs to be done? What can be done between now and Election Day or now and even the next Election Day, down the road, to make our systems less vulnerable?

  • 10:55:11

    HALDERMANWell, it's too late to replace the systems that we have in time for the upcoming election. But the problem is that 25 percent of American voters still don't have a record of their vote in some indelible physical medium, like a paper ballot, that can be used to check that the computers involved are correct. And we need to make sure that that's corrected, that everyone has a paper ballot for the next election. We also have to resist the urge to go full-blown internet voting. Because, obviously, with what we're seeing today with state on state cyber attacks being something you read about every week in the newspaper, voting online is just too dangerous to do with current technology.

  • 10:55:51

    DESJARDINSThank you, Alex. General Spano?

  • 10:55:54

    GENYeah, I would agree with that, as well. And I think for the states, looking at the actual voting systems and checking, you know, supply chain. I mean, insuring the physical security of those to the point of, you know, again, Alex's point of tampering with those specific voting machines. And begin and really consider the dialogue moving forward of how we address the problem as a nation…

  • 10:56:22


  • 10:56:22

    GEN…in terms of strategy. Budget and throwing money at the problem always seems to be that quick fix reaction, but in the end, in the absence of a real solid strategy of how to spend that money on a solid security framework…

  • 10:56:38

    DESJARDINSOkay. Thank you, General Spano. I wanted to make sure that Dana Milbank gets another word in. What about mindset? How do we prepare ourselves for this election?

  • 10:56:45

    MILBANKWell, we need some bipartisan agreement that the integrity of elections is important. It's not necessarily just about spending money, but you can't have a situation in which the loser of the election says they cheated and it was stolen. That undermines democracy and -- we need. And the Congress to have some agreement to protect the integrity of the elections.

  • 10:57:07

    DESJARDINSDana Milbank, with The Washington Post. You've written recently about this. Thank you so much for joining us. We also had Alex Halderman, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan and director of the University of Michigan's Center for Computer Security and Society. Thank you, Alex. And…

  • 10:57:25

    HALDERMANThank you.

  • 10:57:25

    DESJARDINS…Brigadier -- retired Brigadier General Steve Spano, president and chief operating offer -- officer of the Center for Internet Security. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

  • 10:57:32

    GENYou're quite welcome.

  • 10:57:33

    DESJARDINSAnd I'm Lisa Desjardins. Thank you for listening.

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