Securing your vote: How safe are Md.’s absentee ballots?

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2016 file photo, Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. speaks to supporters on election night, in Silver Spring, Md. Van Hollen will head the Democratic Senate campaign arm for the 2018 election cycle. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

WASHINGTON — Questions have been raised about the security of state election systems ahead of the midterm elections, which are now just three weeks away, but U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, from Maryland, believes the state’s voters can expect their votes to be properly counted.

“I’m confident, based on what I’ve been told, in the security of Maryland’s election infrastructure for this election,” Van Hollen, a Democrat, said this week, when asked about the issue by WTOP.

But Van Hollen still worries about an FBI finding earlier this year that a Russian oligarch with connections to Vladimir Putin had ties to a software vendor that hosts the state’s voter registration system. Van Hollen, along with Sens. Ben Cardin, another Maryland Democrat, and Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, have introduced legislation that would prohibit foreign ownership of companies that support U.S. election systems.

“When all these alarm bells went off, obviously people looked into it closely and are monitoring the situation extra-closely,” Van Hollen said.

The legislation will not be acted upon before next month’s elections. But Van Hollen hopes it will help address issues such as Russian meddling in the future, saying that “no foreign adversary should be able to control any part of America’s election infrastructure.”

A glaring vulnerability

Michael Greenberger, director of the of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland, said he supports Van Hollen’s efforts. But while Maryland has made good steps toward improving voter security, Greenberger still believes there’s a glaring vulnerability: the state’s absentee ballot system.

“It’s only going to be a matter of time before this becomes a cataclysmic problem,” Greenberger told WTOP.

Greenberger believes the process for getting and filling out an absentee ballot is too susceptible to possible fraud. He said “bad actors” can obtain a Social Security number for as little as 10 cents on the dark web, which can lead to a potentially bogus ballot.

“It doesn’t need to be signed, and it’s been a Damocles sword over the Maryland election system for many years,” he said.

The State Board of Elections says you must mail or hand-deliver your absentee ballot once you’ve filled it out. It can’t be submitted online or returned by email.

For next month’s election, your request for an absentee ballot must be received by Tuesday, Oct. 30, if you want to get your ballot by mail or fax. It must be received by Friday, Nov. 2, if you want to download your ballot from the state’s website.

The latest figures from the Maryland Board of Elections show that as of Sept. 30, 3,975,309 voters were registered to vote. That’s only a few thousand short of the state record, which is 3,977,637.

Nationwide, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told a congressional panel last week that her agency is continually working to protect voting systems against hacking ahead of the Nov. 6 elections.


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