As the Alaska Legislature held a Thursday hearing examining the security state’s election system, the Alaska Division of Elections responded to claims that a hacker penetrated its systems on Election Day 2016. Earlier this week, the Anchorage Daily News published details of a previously undisclosed penetration of the division’s computer systems. The division has previously said Alaska was among the 21 states identified by the Department of Homeland Security as targets of Russian vulnerability scans, but it had not discussed an event on the morning of Election Day itself. In that event, exposed by emails first obtained by the ADN (and subsequently obtained by the Associated Press and the Empire), a hacker identified on Twitter as @cyberzeist published pictures of the administrative tools the division uses to share election results with the public.
It wasn’t until Anchorage Daily News reporter Nat Herz caught wind of irregularities in the 2016 General Election that the Division of Elections admitted its computers had been hacked not once, but twice. The second attack was at 5:37 am on Election Day, 2016. In what could be viewed as a cover-up by the Division of Elections, Election Division Director Josie Bahnke said she didn’t disclose it because the attack had no effect on the outcome of the elections. Emails uncovered by Herz support that assertion but do not explain why no report was made to the public in the year and a half that followed, especially after the September, 2017 notification of Russian intrusion into Alaska’s Election Division data, which had also occurred in 2016.
Hackers reportedly breached election systems in a third state, in addition to the already disclosed incidents involving Arizona and Illinois, during the 2016 campaign cycle. On Election Day 2016, a hacker successfully penetrated a server hosting Alaska’s main election website, the Anchorage Daily News reported on Monday night, citing documents obtained through a public records request. The breach is not connected to the previously reported hacking attempt made by Russia-linked hackers to access Alaska’s primary voter registration database. Alaska was one of 21 states that were previously informed by the Department of Homeland Security of similar Russian probing activity on their election systems. Security experts told ADN that, although the newly reported incident was a successful intrusion, the Alaska Division of Elections’ security measures appear to have prevented the attackers from changing content on the server.
A hacker gained unauthorized access in 2016 to the server that hosts Alaska’s public elections website, according to documents released by Gov. Bill Walker’s administration. The documents, obtained by the Anchorage Daily News through a public records request, outline an incident that drew the attention of federal law enforcement but had not been publicly revealed by Alaska election officials. The documents show that Alaska’s elections, like other states’ around the country, face threats from hackers seeking to undermine American democratic institutions. But technology experts both inside and outside state government said that no damage was done — and that the attack actually highlights the resilience of Alaska’s multi-layered cyber-defenses.
Alaska is looking into conducting more of its elections by mail, though it may not completely convert right away. Interest at the state and local government levels increased after the Municipality of Anchorage saw a massive jump in its voter turnout during its April 3 election, which was conducted entirely by mail. However, the cost also reportedly increased, in part due to the printing and mailing of ballots. The Alaska Division of Elections and the Election Policy Work Group plan to meet May 8 and 9 in Anchorage to discuss four possible new vendors for the state’s ballot systems, all of which would involve a hybrid vote-by-mail system, according to a press release issued Thursday.
Anchorage paid slightly more than $1 million to hold the city’s first-ever vote-by-mail election this spring, roughly twice the cost of previous poll-based elections, according to data released by election officials Friday. Elections officials said they weren’t surprised by the higher price tag for the election, an experiment that recorded the highest number of voters in an April city election in city history. But the bigger bill likely won’t go away anytime soon, officials said.”It looks like going forward we will probably have higher election costs doing vote-by-mail than we did the poll-based election,” said Assemblyman Pete Petersen, who chairs the Assembly’s ethics and elections committee.
Alaska: After Anchorage success, state considers whether Alaska is ready for elections by mail | Juneau Empire
By the numbers alone, Anchorage’s first election held by mail has been a smashing success. Election Day was Tuesday, and almost 80,000 votes have already been received by elections officials, setting a record for the most ever cast in an Anchorage muncipal election. State elections officials have already been asking the obvious question: If it worked for Anchorage, could it work for the rest of the state? “I think it very well might,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak and a member of the state’s elections policy task force. “If half of our population is voting by mail and it’s a good experience, why wouldn’t the rest of the state want to do that?”
Alaska elections officials are struggling to put methods in place to translate the state’s election ballot into an array of diverse Alaska Native languages. The effort to respond to a couple of court settlements has already resulted in materials in seven different Yup’ik dialects and some Athabascan Gwich’in languages. The state, expanding its effort beyond the court order, now includes a couple of Inupiaq languages. The effort is the subject of a conference that is going on this week at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. The law requires written ballot materials in minority languages, but one of the big issues is that many Alaska Native speakers never learned to read their Native language.
The Alaska Division of Elections has announced it will suspend a little-used absentee voting program in an effort to improve the security of the state’s elections. In a note released last week, the division said it had received a “B” grade for election security in a recent study conducted by the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy group. “B” was the highest grade awarded to any state in the country; 11 states received the ranking, the report indicated. Alaska’s report drew attention to the way the state handles absentee ballots submitted from overseas.
A national group is focusing on Alaska in a bid to get the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit a 2010 decision that upended how campaigns are run in this country. The court decision paved the way for corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures, and in Alaska, was viewed by state officials as likely rendering several provisions of law prohibiting or limiting certain contributions unconstitutional. Washington, D.C.-based Equal Citizens wants to put that interpretation to the test but it could face an uphill battle. Equal Citizens is supporting complaints that have been filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission over contributions made in the 2016 election to independent groups that backed candidates to the Alaska Legislature. One group supported a Republican and the other leaned toward Democrats during the general election.
On Friday, the state of Alaska is appealing the court’s decision on a lawsuit regarding unaffiliated candidates to run in a specific party’s primary election. The court ruled last month that candidates do not have to be a registered member of a party to appear on that party’s primary ballot. The suit was originally brought by the Alaska Democratic Party. A superior court judge found that the requirement violates the party’s first amendment right to associate with candidates who are not Democrats. The case will now be taken to the Alaska Supreme Court.
In a 33-page ruling, an Alaska Superior Court judge has ruled that the Alaska Democratic Party may run candidates in its primary who are not officially aligned with any political party. In practical terms, this means a non-Democrat could win against a registered Democrat in the Democrats’ primary, and then go on to represent the Democrats in the general election. For example, if Gov. Bill Walker decides to run in the Democrats’ primary, he might beat Mark Begich, whom many have thought is considering a run. If he won in the Democrats’ primary, he’d have to appear on the General Election ballot as a Democrat, according to the court ruling.
Oops!… They did it again. For what seems like the billionth time, U.S. voter records have been exposed, this time targeting Alaska. A cache of voter records containing the personal information of nearly 600,000 voters in Alaska was inadvertently exposed online. The culprit? An unsecured CouchDB database. And just, you know, a giant oversight. The cause of the hack was discovered by researchers at the Kromtech Security Research Center, who determined that the database of about 593,000 voters (that’s every registered voter in the state of Alaska) was accidentally configured for public access. That means it was just out there, floating in the breeze without any sort of password protection or security wall, making it accessible to anyone who knew where to look. No logging in, no verification, nada.
IT security researchers at Kromtech Security Center discovered an unprotected database exposed online due to misconfiguration of CouchDB containing nearly 600,000 records belonging to Alaskan voters. “The exposed data is a larger voter file called Voterbase compiled by TargetSmart, a leader in national voting databases that contains the contact and voting information of more than 191 million voters and 58 million unregistered, voting age consumers,” said researchers. The database with 593,328 records was available to the public for anyone to download without any security or login credentials. Each record contained names, date of birth, addresses, voting preferences, marital status, income details, children’s age, gun ownership related data and points which might help decide what issue the voter might be appealed to. TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier blamed a third-party firm for the incident and told ZDNetthat “We’ve learned that Equals3, an AI software company based in Minnesota, appears to have failed to secure some of their data and some data they license from TargetSmart and that a database of approximately 593,000 Alaska voters appears to have been inadvertently exposed.”
A cache of voter records on over a half-million Americans has been found online. The records, totaling 593,328 individual sets of records, appear to contain every registered voter in the state of Alaska, according to security researchers at the Kromtech Security Research Center, who found the database. The records were stored in a misconfigured CouchDB database, which was accessible to anyone with a web browser — no password needed — until Monday when the data was secured and subsequently pulled offline. The exposed data is just a portion of a larger voter file compiled by TargetSmart, which said its national voter file — that contains 191 million voters — is the “most comprehensive and up-to-date voter file ever assembled.” The data is collected and used to help political campaigns with their fundraising, research, and voter contact programs, the company said. ZDNet was provided a small sample of the records for verification. Each XML-formatted record contained details, some sensitive and personally identifiable information, on prospective voters, including names, addresses, dates of birth, their ethnic identity, whether an individual is married, and the individual’s voting preferences.
The state of Alaska is exploring options for conducting elections after 2018, as it is faced with an aging voting system and financial pressures amid an ongoing state budget deficit. A bipartisan working group established by Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott is examining the issue. Josie Bahnke, director of the state Division of Elections, said one option that has gotten attention is a hybrid system would include allowing for early, in-person voting and voting by mail. But she said discussions are preliminary and more research must be done to see if this approach would work in Alaska, a vast state with far-flung communities. In certain parts of Alaska, the state must provide language assistance, including for a number of Alaska Native languages and dialects.
An obscure legal challenge in the Land of the Midnight Sun may join a recent line of U.S. Supreme Court cases that have shaken up the status quo in campaign finance law. The case is Thompson v. Hebdon. David Thompson and District 18 of the Alaska Republican Party are challenging a section of the state constitution imposing a $500 cap on contributions to candidates, and a $5,000 cap on donations to political parties. Although a limit on contributions by out-of-state residents to candidates and political parties is drawing the most attention, restrictions on contributions made by in-state residents also will face scrutiny — and possible changes — if the case reaches the nation’s highest court.
Facing a civil rights advisory committee, multiple Alaskans expressed concerns over Alaska Native voting rights Thursday. From challenges with location to overcoming language barriers, a group of activists discussed some of the changes they say are still needed to improve Alaska Native voting rights, particularly for those in rural areas. In 2014, a ruling in a historic lawsuit shifted the way 29 communities of voters understand election information. As part of the settlement for the Toyukak v. Treadwell lawsuit voting materials were translated into Yup’ik and Gwich’in languages. Changes, Indra Arriaga, the elections language assistance compliance manager for the state of Alaska division of elections said could be seen in the 2016 Presidential Election.
Though still a few months away, Anchorage is getting ready for its first election set to be conducted by mail. In April, as residents pick a mayor and weigh in on a controversial public bathroom measure, they won’t be heading to the usual polling locations. Instead, they’ll be sending envelopes to a white, rectangular sorting machine that arrived at the city’s election center Monday morning. Moving trucks backed up to an expansive warehouse that’s largely empty, save for clusters of new election equipment and computers. Half-a-dozen workers used wrenches and drills to take apart shoulder-high wooden crates. The cargo inside was metal sorting trays and a boxy machine that resembles a filing cabinet. The official name is the Bell and Howell Envelope Intake and Signature Verification System, Deputy Clerk Amanda Moser explained. Moser is responsible for overseeing much of the multi-year process converting Anchorage to a Vote By Mail election system. The Bell and Howell machine cost the municipality $610,599, and the Anchorage Assembly voted to include an additional $56,790 contract for installation and continued support.
If the Senate agrees with the idea, Alaskans will be able to cast their ballots on the same day they register to vote. On Friday morning, the Alaska House of Representatives voted 22-17 to approve House Bill 1, which allows Alaskans to register to vote on Election Day, then cast a ballot for statewide office. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, who said in a prepared statement that it may improve voter turnout. “The right to vote embodies the spirit of American democracy, casting a vote is the most effective way to have one’s voice heard in the political process,” he said. “When we exercise our right to vote we impact our community far beyond election night, we elect individuals to act on our behalf to manage government services, set policies that shape our state, and invest and develop our resources.”
In the last Legislature, a Democrat-sponsored bill aimed at increasing voter turnout in Alaska, especially in the Bush. It didn’t get a single hearing in the Republican-led House of Representatives. Now, Rep. Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat, is in a powerful position leading the new House majority, and has reintroduced the legislation and the bill is making some progress. Cindy Allred works for Get Out the Native Vote, an organization that has been active registering and encouraging voting among Alaska Natives, many of whom live in rural areas.
It soon could be legal to post selfies of marked ballots in Alaska. The state House on Wednesday passed legislation, 32-8, that would allow voters to share photos, videos or other images of their marked ballots with the public. They could not, however, show videos or images of their or another person’s marked ballot while in a polling place or within 200 feet of one in an attempt to get someone to vote a certain way. “People have new forms of digital expression whether it’s through social media, Facebook and Twitter or texting photos and Snapchat,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who co-sponsored the bill, CBS affiliate KTVA reports. Kreiss-Tompkins said that the Division of Elections receives a multitude of phone calls after each election cycle from Alaskans who fear they will be prosecuted for breaking state law because of a picture posted.
Legislators are considering a bill this winter to clarify that someone voting in Alaska can post an online photo with their ballot. That’s currently not allowed under state law. Sitka democratic representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins sponsored House bill 7. His legislative intern Alicia Norton testified on the bill’ behalf in front of the House Community and Regional Affairs committee this month. “HB 7 is a ballot selfie bill which would allow a person to take a photo with their marked ballot and post it online,” Norton explained. “It’s currently illegal in Alaska but it’s not a heavily enforced law. And it’s just changing some language.” Kreiss Tomkins’ sponsor statement for the bill says ballot selfies have become a common way to express support for a candidate, a cause, or the act of voting itself.
In Alaska it’s illegal to “exhibit” a picture of a marked ballot. Sharing a ballot selfie isn’t a criminal offense as in some states, but it is technically grounds for invalidating that vote. Now, Alaska may be joining 22 other states who have legalized ballot selfies as a form of political speech. On Oct. 27, 2016, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin expressed her support for presidential candidate Donald Trump by posting a picture of her ballot on Facebook. The picture got 17,000 reactions, 560 shares and 616 comments. It also generated news articles questioning whether Palin had violated state law.
A group of Republicans trying to loosen campaign contribution limits in Alaska — following key decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years — is appealing a ruling by a federal judge in November that upheld the state’s strict limits. Kevin Clarkson, attorney for the plaintiffs, said on Monday that the ruling by U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess, an appointee of George W. Bush, came as no surprise. Burgess is bound to follow case law established by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that represents nine Western states, including Alaska, Clarkson said.
More people who speak Alaska Native languages but who have limited English proficiency will receive translated sample ballots and other election material. That’s due to changes the U.S. Census Bureau announced on Monday.
The Census Bureau expanded the number of areas and languages eligible for election material translation.
Indra Arriaga, who manages language assistance compliance for the state Division of Elections, said it’s important to ensure that people receive translated sample ballots and election outreach public service announcements in minority languages.
Alaska: Voters favor ballot measure tying voter registration to Permanent Fund dividends | Alaska Dispatch News
Alaskans were split on two ballot measures Tuesday, voting in favor of one that would automatically register voters when applying for the Permanent Fund dividend and against another to allow the state to borrow money for student loans. The first ballot measure, which was passing by a wide margin, automatically registers qualified Alaskans to vote when applying for a Permanent Fund dividend. Supporters noted it could capture tens of thousands of voters who qualify for the dividend and are eligible to vote but have not registered. Individuals could later choose to register for a party or opt out. With all but 10 precincts reporting statewide early Wednesday, the measure was passing with 64 percent of the vote. The measure was endorsed by a broad range of interest groups, including Alaska Native organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, oil company BP and Alaska U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.
Alaska: Federal judge rejects lawsuit challenging Alaska’s limits on campaign donations | Alaska Dispatch News
A federal judge Monday upheld Alaska’s strict limits on several types of state-level campaign contributions, ruling that they don’t violate the free speech or equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. A group of Republicans brought the suit in November, and a weeklong trial ended in May. The decision, from U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess, an appointee of George W. Bush, came a day before high-stakes legislative elections that may change control of the state House or Senate.
The Alaska Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed a lower court, and reinstated Dean Westlake as the winner of a disputed House election. “I’ve been dancing in my office for the last hour,” said Westlake’s attorney, Thomas Amodio. “They got it right. Four of them got it right, anyway, but that’s all that matters.” The court issued its two-page decision within five hours of hearing oral arguments in the case, with one judge partially dissenting. The high court had hoped to reach a quick decision so ballots could be shipped to villages in the Montana-sized House District 40 beginning Monday.
Alaska: Judge reverses House District 40 primary, gives Nageak a two-vote edge | Alaska Public Media
Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi ordered the Division of Elections to certify that incumbent Benjamin Nageak of Barrow won the primary over Dean Westlake of Kotzebue by a two-vote margin. The outcome of the primary could determine who organizes a House majority. While both are Democrats, Nageak caucuses with the Republican-led House majority, and Westlake said he’ll caucus with the Democrats. The decision reverses the outcome of a recount, which had Westlake winning by eight votes. Nageak, who is the co-chairman of the House Resources Committee, expressed relief. “I’m pleased by the court’s result and hopeful it will be sustained during the appeal to the Supreme Court,” Nageak said. “I’m sure that’s where it’s going to go. And I hope this decision will result in improvement of training.”