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Digging Deeper: The safety of your vote on Primary Day

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ILLINOIS (WREX) -- In five days, voters will head to the polls to cast a vote in the Illinois Primary Election. It will be the first time Illinois voters can pick a presidential candidate since a voter registration database was hacked in 2016. The state says it has beefed up security and spent $13.2 million in federal grant money to protect it from happening again.

On a cold February day, voting machines scan back and forth on the third floor of the Winnebago County Clerk's Office. The monotonous noise sounds over and over again, as representatives from both parties scan ballots in a test run.

"We're trying to demonstrate that these machines have been tested and they are accurately reporting all the votes," said Winnebago County Clerk Lori Gummow, adding that the state randomly selects the voting machines that need to be tested.

"So we get a good cross section of the county," she added.

The hope is that on March 17, everything goes just as well for poll workers and election officials.

Four years after Russian interference into an election, and a Russian hack of the Illinois Voter Registration Database, the state increased security.

"Their goal was to create chaos and distrust and I think they were very successful in that mission," Gummow said.

"The result is that we've taken steps to be vigilant and to make sure we do not have any breeches in our cyber security," she added.

But, not all voters are satisfied. Bill Johnson and his wife say they tried to vote by paper ballot at the Winnebago County Clerk's office on the first day of early voting, but couldn't.

"I know things can happen and I'm worried about the state of Illinois' voting system," Johnson said.

He added that he and his wife were told the ballot printer was not working properly, and they would have to vote by computer, or vote another day. They chose to vote using the touch screen computer.

"It does concern me because Russia can hack into our computers," he said.

Both state and county officials say, even though a breach did happen in 2016, it was only to access voter information. They say nothing as changed and outside actors cannot hack voting machines, whether a vote is cast on paper or computer.

"There's never been an allegation that Russia, Iran, or North Korea, or China, or any remote hacker has been able to remotely access that equipment and affect voting in any way," said Matt Dietrich, the Public Information Officer for the Illinois State Board of Elections. "That shouldn't be a concern for voters."

Voting machines and ballot counters are not connected to the internet. So, leaders say remote access cannot happen. Plus, each time a vote is cast in the state of Illinois, a paper count is formed. According to the State Board, in a worst case scenario, the state could re-run the election the next day using just the paper ballots and receipts made by the touch screen voting machines.

"A lot of people still utilize the paper ballots," said Gummow. "We encourage that, because you know the Russians cannot hack paper."

Since 2016, Illinois has used $13.2 million in federal grant money to increase election security and give local election authorities what they need.

"People need to understand that we really changed everything about the way we handle data," said Dietrich. "After that happened, I think it was a significant warning to the entire country of what was going on."

The state also joined the Multi-state Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

"That allows us to work with other states, with industry and academia, to be on the lookout for potential cyber threats," Dietrich added.

So, when voters head to the polls on March 17, and again on November 3, leaders say they can rest assured that their vote is safe.

"Illinois residents should have 100 percent confidence when they vote," Dietrich said.

James Stratton

James Stratton is the Evening Anchor at 13 WREX and reports for 13 Investigates He joined the team in August, 2018 after working at KWQC TV-6 in Davenport Iowa. His work in Illinois and Iowa has been awarded in both states, along with Edward R. Murrow and Emmy Awards at 13 WREX.

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