As a new presidential election year approaches, some voting machines are still living in 2020.
In Washington, a trio of counties have declined to update their voting technology, despite appeals from state leaders who say the upgrades will improve election security. Central to the standoff is a hack-monitoring device that was previously the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories. It’s one of several ongoing partisan disputes over election security in the run-up to the 2024 race.
Pro-democracy groups caution that the technology lapses also threaten to undermine trust in elections.
“When these kinds of policy decisions are made on the basis of such vague conspiracy theorizing, that gives people a lot of room to continue speculating, and opens the door to some pretty absurd things being seen as true in the community,” Kate Bitz, a program director with the civil rights group Western States Center, told The Daily Beast.
At the recommendation of Washington’s secretary of state, all but three of Washington’s counties have installed a device called an Albert sensor, which monitors for intrusions on counties’ internet networks.
Election security experts described the device as an additional layer of protection on voting machines. Earlier this year, the state upped the ante for holdouts, allowing counties that install the device to apply for up to $80,000 in election security grants, the Spokesman-Review reported.
But three conservative counties—Grant, Ferry, and Lincoln—have declined to budge, even though Ferry and Lincoln counties had previously installed the Albert sensor. Those two counties removed the devices, which featured in an unfounded conspiracy theory about supposed leftist control of voting machines.
In early 2022, NPR reported that year, Washington Republicans began circulating a conspiracy theory that attempted to tie the Albert device to leftist plots by arguing that the group that operates the program, the Center for Internet Security, had suspicious ties to Democrats. (In actuality, the CIS is a nonpartisan organization that works with national security agencies and receives federal funding.) One such conspiracy theory, promoted by a prominent election denialist and reviewed by The Daily Beast, falsely claimed the CIS was a “radical left” agency and that the Albert devices allowed shadowy actors to “overwrite” election results.
Emma Steiner, Information Accountability Project manager at the watchdog group Common Cause, said the Albert plays a role in a broader far-right conspiracy theory about “the role of connection to the internet at polling places.”
Conspiracy promoters like the Gateway Pundit and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell have misrepresented some voting machines as directly connected to the internet, and therefore more susceptible to ploys like vote-switching.
“It’s all part of this broader narrative that election workers are conspiring against voters, and that voting machines cannot be trusted,” Steiner noted.
In actuality, the sensors are passive devices that listen for known intrusions on a county’s internet network, said Susannah Goodman, director of election security at Common Cause.
“Elections weren’t declared critical infrastructure until 2017. To us, Albert sensors were a step in the right direction. They won’t stop an attack from happening, but they’ll tell you that bad actors are circling,” Goodman said, likening the sensor to an alarm system. “I thought it was too passive when I first heard about it.”
While watchdogs like Goodman describe the Albert as a useful tool for monitoring and sharing threats, conspiracy theories caught the ear of Republicans in Ferry County, where the GOP chair authored a memo casting suspicion on the devices, the CIS, and a CIS co-founder’s work for Democratic presidential administrations.
“I continue to press on this issue because it is hard to imagine why a county would allow a non-profit organization such as this, access to the proprietary data on its network, 24/7 across the internet,” the chair wrote.
The report was also bolstered by concerns from an administrator in Lincoln County, where an Albert device had failed to stop a ransomware attack. (Security experts say the devices can help prevent ransomware attacks, but that, alone, they do not represent a bulletproof defense against the campaigns, which can take many forms.) That administrator told NPR that, after the ransomware attack, he began researching CIS’s connections to “left-leaning” groups.
He shared those findings with Ferry County Republicans shortly before they decided to stop using their Albert device. (Lincoln County ended the contract for its Albert device in late 2021.)
Officials in Grant County never installed the device, reportedly telling colleagues in Lincoln County that they viewed the Albert as a security issue. Conservatives in other counties with the device have also rallied to discard their Albert monitors, casting the conflict as a battle for counties’ right to override state-level suggestions. In a 2022 op-ed, a committee member for the Ferry County GOP accused state officials of “dox[ing]” Ferry County over its Albert opposition, and speculated ulterior motives for media outlets that report on counties’ reluctance to install the sensors.
“Do the Albert sensors do more than officials claim they do?” she wrote “Otherwise, why do the big national media attack their decisions?”
In Washington, individual counties have the right to set policies about their internet security—policies that include the Albert. But state officials have suggested setting state-wide legal standards for voting machines, if holdout counties fail to upgrade their equipment.
Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs told the Spokesman-Review that “it’s getting to the point now where I might have to introduce legislation for minimum standards of security […] I know it’s political expediency on their part to be able to say, ‘We’ve got something, and it’s not the Albert sensor.’ Because right now misinformation is directed at the Albert sensor.”
Bitz, the Western States Center organizer, said the voting machine fracas underscores the importance of election security outside of swing states like Pennsylvania, where it often garners the most headlines.
“This instance is an example of the way everyone’s experience with democracy is local,” she said. “Even in places that are not seen as electorally significant, election protection is still crucial. The way that elections happen locally, the ways people feel about their votes being counted, and the extent to which misinformation travels all have a major impact on the future of democracy.
“That’s true not just in Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, but also in northeast Washington state.”