'Legislators are getting calls for a forensic audit': Kansas officials work toward 'safer elections'

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Empty voter booths await residents of Shawnee County at Heritage Hall by the Stormont Vail Events Center during the August primary elections. Advance mail-in voting for the November general election started Wednesday.

Kansas officials are working toward "safer elections" in the state, a term that one legislator said gives him "heartburn" amid calls for a forensic audit of the 2020 election results.

The comments came as legislators inquired about a Shawnee County issue involving a data chip during the 2020 general election.

Sen. Virgil Peck, R-Havana, and Sen. Rick Kloos, R-Berryton, asked state election director Bryan Caskey about forensic audits.

"I personally haven't had any issues or concerns with election integrity in the state of Kansas," Peck said during a secretary of state's office presentation on election security at Tuesday's meeting of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Kansas Security. "But most of us as legislators are getting calls for a forensic audit."

Calls for forensic audits in other states — including a high-profile one in Arizona — remain political lightning rods nearly a year after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in last year's presidential race. Advance voting by mail for the November 2021 local elections started Wednesday.

The Arizona audit confirmed that Biden won the state's largest county. The audit didn't prove election fraud, according to a USA Today fact check.

More:Fact check: Arizona audit affirmed Biden's win, didn't prove voter fraud, contrary to Trump claim

In a letter addressed to American citizens dated Friday, a group of state lawmakers from across the country called for a forensic audit of all 50 states for the "corrupted 2020 election." Kansas Republican lawmakers Sens. Alicia Straub and Mark Steffen and Reps. Tatum Lee, Trevor Jacobs, Randy Garber and Les Mason signed the letter, which was shared by Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers.

"The main reason I signed that letter is because I was asked to, overwhelmingly, by my constituents," Mason, of McPherson, told a reporter on Friday. "They wanted to see some action on this, and I promised them that I would do that.

"I was just representing my district."

While Mason said he believes there were nationwide issues, he doesn't expect an audit to change who is president. He declined to say whether he believes Biden was duly elected.

"Within Kansas," Caskey said, "there's no definition of a forensic audit. In Kansas, what we're trying to say with this information is that we keep track of every keystroke of every computer that touches voting machines. You do ballot programming. You do ballot tabulation. So the computers that do that, we audit, meaning we track every single keystroke, who made that keystroke, when they made it and were they allowed to do that.

"So that's what our systems are required to do. I'm just not sure I can compare that with the phrase 'forensic audit,' especially as it relates to other states."

2020 election night scare in Shawnee County

Kloos then asked about an election data problem in Shawnee County.

Caskey explained that at the end of election night for the 2020 general election in Shawnee County, a voting machine was missing one of its memory chips.

"The election office temporarily stopped what they were doing to find that chip," Caskey said. "They found it. It ended up being a chip that was a backup that did not have any data on it."

The local election office followed its procedure and accounted for everything along the way, Caskey said.

More:Judge declines to temporarily block enforcement of Kansas voting law related to who can collect ballots

"Just struggling a little bit here with some of this," said Rep. Dave Baker, R-Council Grove. "I didn't know we ever had a problem."

He highlighted Caskey's use of the phrase "safer elections."

"That statement — 'safer elections' — which cast doubt that there may have been a problem in the past," Baker said. "I can tell you some of the constituents that I've talked to, they're almost taking that personally, and I don't blame them. I would, too."

Marion County Clerk Tina Spencer, who is president of the Kansas County Clerks and Election Officials Association, pushed back on Baker's semantics.

"I think we can always improve from where we are," Spencer said. "So anytime that something comes along that is a tool that we can use just to make it better, I don't think using that word says that we've had a problem, but just that we're always striving to improve and to consider things that we've never thought about before."

Security measures and 'safer elections'

Caskey highlighted several election security initiatives and existing laws.

"It is important to remember," Caskey said, "that we already have processes in law like photo ID and signature verification that speak to the security of the election system."

The secretary of state's office "prior to the last election" appointed an election security specialist who is tasked with leading state programs and educating county election and IT officials.

"We've provided increased cybersecurity training statewide and we are assisting counties with securing their own election computers and networks against cyberattack," Caskey said. "We must raise the security posture of every county computing environment, which will lead to safer elections across the state of Kansas."

More:Judge rules Kansas secretary of state didn't violate open records law in dispute over ballot report

The voter registration system is "the backbone of our election system," Caskey said, and the state has "installed industry leading security safeguards" for county-level access.

"We work with security partners at every level of government — local, state and national — to provide the most secure election environment possible," Caskey said. "Understanding this is a constant endeavor, with new and emerging threats a continual challenge with our partners, we review existing frameworks, we explore new strategies and training opportunities to improve our security posture."

Voting machines can't be connected to internet

Caskey said that Scott Schwab, the Republican secretary of state and a former lawmaker, will ask the Legislature to codify an existing policy on voting machines into law.

"Securing voting machines are of the utmost important part in that whole election process," he said. "It has been a long standing policy of this office that no election machine or tabulator may be connected to the internet. This policy has been in place since 2005. The secretary of state plans to introduce legislation which will make this policy law in the upcoming legislative session."

Caskey said the state has "multiple safeguards in place" to prevent tampering. Counties are ultimately responsible for purchasing voting equipment, but they must choose from models certified by the state.

More:As Kansas lawmakers tussle over voting law changes, some election officials are skeptical about efforts

Equipment certification involves "independent testing labs across the country whose sole job is to tear those machines apart and try to break them forwards, backwards, sideways, upside down," Caskey said.

The state requires all computer-based election systems to be able to audit data, where it can "track the sequence of events of the system, and identify the people initiating those events." The equipment must also have "well defined and strictly enforced policies on who can access the system" and under what circumstances.

The systems are also required to have "physical security measures in place to control and limit access to the election equipment every day of the year, not just on election day."

Local officials under fire

Baker asked Caskey how to address election concerns.

"In my mind, I've never ever questioned the results of an election," Baker said. "It sounds like you're pretty well convinced that there's not any issues with elections in the state of Kansas. My local clerks have expressed to me, you know, almost a personal attack, they feel like on some of the stuff that's going on. So how do we respond to that when those people ask us about election integrity?"

Caskey said he does not take it personally when voters ask about election security. Rather, he wants to provide answers.

"I'm happy that they're interested," Caskey said. "We welcome those conversations because from the state's perspective, these are people who just may not know everything we do to secure the system. They may have heard things or read things, and honestly they just have questions about the process."

More:Controversial Kansas voting laws take effect — despite legal challenges. Here's what to know

Caskey thrice declined to share names of vendors, security partners and the state's election security specialist during the public meeting.

"They don't know who the vendor is ... you talk about security partners, but you don't name any of the security partners," Peck said, explaining why some people call for forensic audits.

Caskey said he would share the information with Peck after the public meeting was over. He said the state has a general policy not to discuss the names in public, "not that it's a secret, but, quite frankly the less information we share with our adversaries about who we use and what systems we use, the better."

Baker said he wanted to defend local officials and asked whether questions should be referred to the state.

"I live in a small county and trying to find county employees is always a challenge," Baker said. "And then when we beat the clerk up with these things, that's kind of a tough one."

"It's not that simple," Caskey said, "because unfortunately the county election officers are the frontline of our computer security posture. It's the county that processes voter registration applications. It's the county where voters come in and cast their votes. It's the county that counts those votes and sends it to the state. So the counties have to be at the frontlines of our security system and our security is only as good as each of the 105 counties make it."

Public can observe work of local election officials

Spencer, the Marion County clerk and state association president, said local officials take several steps to secure elections. The public is allowed to observe their work.

"I think one of the biggest obstacles in our job recently has been mistrust, misinformation and a lot of people just not understanding how many steps that we do have to take to secure our elections," she said.

Rep. Eric Smith, R-Burlington and the Security Committee chairman, decried the "misinformation age."

"The people out there hearing stories about the election" take their complaints to local officials, Smith said. "Sometimes it is very accusatory. ... That's not fair.

"But certainly when we are asked as government officials to declare a transparency of our actions and those things that we oversee, when we pull back away from that and say, 'we don't want to give full disclosure,' there seems to be an onslaught."

Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Andrew Bahl contributed some reporting.