N.J. counties prepping to combat tampering, hacks on Election Day

Representatives from Monmouth County saw the prompt asking what would happen if their Twitter accounts and websites had been hacked and were giving out incorrect information to voters about polling times. They knew exactly what page of their manual to turn to solve the problem.

Election representatives from all of New Jersey’s 21 counties practiced their emergency election preparedness skills Tuesday in an all-day seminar hosted by the New Jersey Division of Elections and the Department of Homeland Security.

Officials gathered to go through practice scenarios of various election emergencies that could happen before, during or after a local or federal election.

“So many of our people here who are participating have been working since the election with superstorm Sandy and we’ve been working toward this goal of being ready for something like this for many, many years,” said Monmouth County Clerk Christine Hanlon. “And it was very rewarding to be sitting at this table participating and being able to handle the scenarios because we have included them in our emergency plan and we’ve been working to be ready for things like this for many years.”

The event was organized by New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way and U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs to prepare election officials across the state for various disasters that could derail an election or election results.

“I think the big picture value is that we all want to become prepared for post-election, election day and of course, pre-election,” Way said in an interview. “I’m proud to say that the 21 counties here in New Jersey are participating in developing their continuity of operations plans, but more significantly they are testing them for insufficiencies.”

Election security has been an ongoing concern since reports of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. A 2018 report from the Democratic members of the House Administration Committee ranked New Jersey among the worst states in the country for election security.

Every county is required to have a contingency of operations plan, and a guide for how to deal with unexpected and emergency-related events. County officials brought their pre-prepared COOPs to the seminar and began to analyze where they might have potential gaps in their current systems.

Support from the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security has been available to ensure that election systems around the state are being safeguarded. The federal version of that office has also been on hand to asses risk and vulnerabilities in the election system, Walsh said.

“We all have to work together in election integrity and security preparedness,” the secretary said.

Election officials were also tested on over 20 different emergency scenarios, with their answers collected by the New Jersey Department of the State for analysis.

Several scenarios tested county officials’ ability to think on their feet, sometimes making the county clerk or superintendent of elections unavailable to play a role in solving a particular scenario and leaving their deputies to take over.

Power outages, malware fishing, and a traffic accident that stopped poll workers from reaching their stations, all played out in theory and put election officials to the test.

“We have learned a lot today,” said Patricia DiCostanzo, Superintendent of Elections for Bergan County. “We are learning what is and isn’t in the COOP. And now were are going to go home and continue learning.”

The New Jersey Department of State will be reviewing the results of each county and analyzing where any potential gaps may be. The Department will then work with the counties to ensure all areas are being covered.

Olivia Rizzo may be reached at orizzo@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @LivRizz. Find NJ.com on Facebook. Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips.

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