Romney candidacy adds urgency to Utah election security work

FILE - In this May 19, 2017, file photo, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox looks on during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Mitt Romney's Senate candidacy in Utah is adding urgency to election officials' work to beef up security and guard against the threat of voting interference from Russian hackers. Cox said Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, the presence of the onetime presidential candidate and Russia critic on the ballot is among the reasons why the state is taking extra steps to ensure the Nov. 6 midterm election is secure. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Mitt Romney’s Senate candidacy has added urgency to efforts to beef up election security and guard against the threat of voting interference from Russian hackers, Utah officials said Tuesday.

The presence of the onetime Republican presidential candidate and Russia critic on the ballot is among the reasons the state is taking additional steps to ensure the Nov. 6 election is secure, said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

FILE – Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney introduces Republican U.S. Rep. Mia Love, of Utah, during a campaign rally Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, in Lehi, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The state has updated voting equipment, invested in additional monitoring software and ramped up testing of its cyber defenses with the help of federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, he said.

U.S. states have been scrambling to guard against Russian hackers who targeted election systems in at least 21 states in 2016. There has been no indication any vote tallies were changed, but the nation’s intelligence chiefs have warned about an ongoing threat of Russian interference.

Romney, who once called Russia the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat, is favored in the race against Democrat Jenny Wilson for the U.S. Senate seat left open by the retirement of Republican Orrin Hatch. A number of hot-button issues like medical marijuana also are on the ballot.

Utah is somewhat unusual in that most of its voting is done by mail. Officials expect 90 percent of those casting ballots to do so by mail next month.

Cox said that system tends to be less vulnerable to large-scale hacking since most of the votes are cast on paper and tabulated by a machine that’s not connected to the internet, though the results are transmitted from counties to the state online and posted on a state website.

The paper record from mail-in ballots gives the state something to fall back on if something goes wrong. New voting machines in 21 counties this year also leave a stronger paper trail.

Utah was not among the states whose election systems were targeted by in 2016, but state-run websites already fend off up to 1 billion attacks in a single day from Russia, China and elsewhere, Cox said.

“It’s just the state of play in the world right now,” he said.

Voters across the country and the political spectrum are reporting a heightened sense of mistrust in U.S. election systems.

“Over the last 30-plus years we haven’t seen a level of distrust of our institutions that we’re seeing now,” Cox said.

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