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Overseas Ohio voters could be blocked by security measures meant to stop hackers - News - The Columbus Dispatch


Cybersecurity measures meant to keep foreign hackers from accessing government websites could make it harder for overseas civilian and military voters in some countries to determine how to cast their ballots.

At least one voter eligible to cast a ballot in Franklin County recently could not access the county Board of Elections website because it had blocked all traffic from Brazil.

Security filters that block international traffic would affect a relatively small number of Ohioans. Overseas voters from Ohio requested about 9,600 ballots in 2018, and only about 7,500 of them were returned, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

But government agencies increasingly are looking to balance access for those who need it versus protections from hackers in other countries as public officials put a higher premium on cybersecurity, particularly around elections systems.

Voting rights groups have raised the issue with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office. LaRose issued a sweeping security directive last summer for Ohio’s county boards of elections in preparation for the 2020 election.

That directive was the result of “lessons learned since 2016” about the threat of cyberattacks on elections systems, LaRose’s spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said in a prepared statement. On Election Day 2019, a cyberattack on LaRose’s website by a Russian-owned company originated in Panama, and LaRose instructed county boards of elections to block activity from Iran in January.

All but eight of Ohio‘s 88 county boards of elections finished security upgrades by the Jan. 31 deadline.

“While those security upgrades may impact an extremely small number of individuals operating computers in higher risk areas from accessing their local elections website, we have anticipated those issues and there are contingencies in place that ensure Ohio voters will have their voice heard — no matter where they are across the globe,” Sheehan said.

Problems for overseas voters are complicated because they are trying to access websites in 88 different counties, said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters in Ohio. Those counties need minimum standards for their websites, and the state needs a system for reporting problems for those who live abroad, she said.

“The fact of the matter is, because not every county is having this problem internationally, then there have to be workarounds,” she said.

Contingencies mostly focus on overseas voters finding other online resources that aren’t blocking traffic from that country or using a surrogate to request the ballot.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program provides elections information, including information for overseas voters and contact information for local elections officials, at fvap.gov. That website does not block international traffic.

A spokeswoman for the program wrote in an email that staffers are aware of overseas voters who cannot access online voter registration and elections systems because of efforts to improve cybersecurity.

Overseas voters also could start with ohio.overseasvotefoundation.org. Certain relatives can request a ballot on behalf of an overseas voter as well.

Jacob Hopkins, though, pointed out that the Franklin County Board of Elections website did not point him to alternative resources for additional information about how to request his ballot.

Hopkins, a former Columbus resident, has not been a regular voter since moving to Brazil in 2013. But he said he wants to cast a ballot in the coming presidential election.

He first encountered a block on the Franklin County Board of Elections website in November, but he met more resistance when he tried to request his 2020 ballot in January.

Elections officials could redirect their website for blocked international users to a secure website that offers additional resources, said Hopkins, who works in information technology.

“It’s a solvable problem. It’s not going to cost $1 million so that three people can use it,” he said.

Franklin County’s cybersecurity systems were working as intended when they blocked Hopkins.

The Franklin County Data Center has two firewalls. One is a service that automatically blocks activity from individual internet protocol addresses attempting to enter county systems, and another “geoblocks” a range of addresses in a country from which it is receiving malicious traffic, said Nikki Milburn, information security director.

Both of those were in place before the county started adopting the extra security measures LaRose required in his directive.

When the county geoblocks addresses, it applies that to all of the systems the data center oversees, Milburn said. For example, if foreign hackers attempt to access the county commissioners system, they could be blocked from the board of elections website as well.

“Bad people just look for an open door, an open window. They don’t care who you are,” she said.

Milburn said international voters also can access county websites from U.S. internet protocol (IP) addresses on military bases and embassies. Most overseas voters are civilians, according to the Elections Assistance Commission.

Uniformed service members, members of the merchant marine and their family members all are eligible to cast overseas ballots. U.S. citizens living outside the country also can vote.

Overseas voters can request a ballot through the Federal Postcard Application, which is treated both as a voter registration and absentee ballot request. Only one request is needed each calendar year, so overseas voters who request a primary ballot after Jan. 1 also will receive a general election ballot for 2020.

Ballots can be sent to voters via email or through the postal service, but they must be signed and returned in the mail.

The deadline for requesting ballots is at noon the Saturday before Election Day. Ballots must be postmarked by the day before the election — March 16 for the primary and Nov. 2 for the general election — and arrive at the board of elections within 10 days of the election.

The first wave of those ballots for the 2020 primary were sent out Jan. 31.

rrouan@dispatch.com

@RickRouan

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