Government

Election security, ease of voting are priorities for Pate

'Russians didn't hack a single vote, but they hacked our minds'

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate talks with a U.S. government class in October at Kennedy High School. Pate talked Tuesday about protecting the integrity of elections while looking for ways to make voting easier for Iowans. Voting via cellphone, he said, will have to wait until security can be ensured. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate talks with a U.S. government class in October at Kennedy High School. Pate talked Tuesday about protecting the integrity of elections while looking for ways to make voting easier for Iowans. Voting via cellphone, he said, will have to wait until security can be ensured. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

HIAWATHA — When he was first serving as Iowa secretary of state, Paul Pate thought the future of voting would have arrived by now.

“I’d have thought we would be voting on our telephones,” said Pate, who was secretary of state from 1995 to 1999. “That was the trend. We were moving that way. We all thought that was what we were going to do.”

Election officials had to “stop, rewind and re-evaluate because, as great as that fingertip service might have been, the practicality of the security side wasn’t there,” added Pate, a Republican, who served one term as the state’s top election official.

Pate, who also operates a family asphalt business, served as Cedar Rapids mayor from 2002 to 2006 before being elected Secretary of State again in 2014. He was re-elected in 2018.

Even with all the improvements in smartphones and other technology, Pate can’t predict when — or if — voting by phone will be an option.

“For now, we’re staying right where we’re at with our paper process,” Pate said Tuesday. “You can’t hack paper ballots from Russia or anywhere else.”

The Russians can’t hack the ballots, but Pate said election security continues to be his top issue.

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Pate recently was elected president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, which awarded his office’s election cybersecurity initiative, “Partnerships Pay Dividends: A Roadmap to Election Cybersecurity,” with the association’s Ideas Award.

It’s not just voting systems that are at risk.

In Iowa, Pate said, an average of 400,000 “unwanted probes” target state government systems each day. A million probes were recorded in a single day.

In addition to the hacking attempts, Pate is concerned about the influence foreign interests could have on elections.

“The Russians didn’t hack a single vote, but they hacked our minds,” he said. “If they sow doubt about the integrity of our elections, they will disenfranchise voters.”

At the same time his office is stepping up efforts to safeguard elections, Pate foresees streamlining the voting process to make it easier for Iowans to participate.

“I can see that in a short time period you will see vote centers so you won’t have as many voting precincts,” Pate said.

He compared that to the strategies employed by businesses that know how far customers will go to get service.

“We have to consider the same approach because we just can’t have as many voting sites as we used to, especially when you have 40 percent voting by mail,” he said. “If you take almost half your voting activity off Election Day, it’s pretty hard to rationalize staffing up some of these sites when you’re only going to have a dozen people come in to vote.”

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Pate expects pushback, especially in rural areas where population decline already has led to school closures and consolidations.

“No one wants anything taken away from them. We all struggle with that,” he said.

In Linn and Johnson counties, where many people are commuting to jobs, Pate expects that flexibility to appeal to voters.

“Ultimately, I can see that the technology will be there so you could almost vote anywhere in the state on Election Day,” he said. “That’s a way off. There’s a lot of lifting to do on that one.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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