Government

Iowa Sec. of State Paul Pate likens cyber threats to war

'Bad actors' seek to undermine American confidence in elections, he says

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (right) talks with Rick and Carol Hammen of Clive after Wednesday’s Westside Conservative Club meeting at an Urbandale restaurant. (Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (right) talks with Rick and Carol Hammen of Clive after Wednesday’s Westside Conservative Club meeting at an Urbandale restaurant. (Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)

DES MOINES — Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate on Wednesday likened the ongoing struggle against forces trying to hack the state’s election network to a “war.”

“It’s a war for public opinion, and it’s a war, if you will, for minds rather than a physical one,” Pate said in pointing to efforts by Russians, North Koreans, Chinese and others trying to disrupt the U.S. election process and weaken the American public’s trust.

“Their manipulation of the social media, their manipulation of certain types of probes that they’re doing is to try to create doubt, to make Americans question their elections process,” Pate told reporters. “So, yes, I consider that a war. I consider it something we need to push back and not tolerate.”

Pate raised concerns about challenges to Iowa’s election process during a breakfast meeting with members of the Westside Conservative Club.

He also shared his worries that any snafu in the upcoming 2020 Democratic “virtual” caucuses could have a “devastating” impact and jeopardize Iowa’s starting position in the presidential selection process every four years.

Pate serves a dual role as state commissioner of elections but does not have a role in the caucus process that is run by the state’s Republican and Democratic parties. But he said both parties have he consulted his office.

He also said he wished Democrats had conducted an “off-Broadway” test of their virtual caucuses during a non-presidential year rather than waiting for a 2020 race with multiple candidates.

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To expand access and inclusion, Iowa Democrats have proposed allowing registered Democrats to participate via phone links on six days before the Feb. 3 caucuses rather than requiring them to appear in person at the Feb. 3 caucuses.

However, the new “virtual” caucuses are awaiting approval from Democratic National Committee officials who have raised concerns that the new system, as currently proposed, could be susceptible to hacking.

Pate said there are “bad actors” constantly looking for “soft spots” or vulnerabilities so Democrats are smart to be vigilant.

Other states, he said, want to usurp Iowa’s coveted first-in-the-nation position, and Republicans suffered missteps in their process during the 2012 caucuses.

“The nation is looking at it and we can’t afford to have a flaw and a screw-up, if you will, because it would be devastating.

Pate said no election system in Iowa has been hacked, but issues have arisen in other states indicating that “bad actors” are focusing more at the local government and school district levels to find weaknesses they can exploit.

Iowa officials, he said, need to constantly send a “clear and loud” message that such efforts won’t be tolerated.

“It’s actually a form of warfare in many ways because they’re trying to impact our economy, and they’re trying to impact our elections,” he said. “So we’ve got out work cut out for us on all fronts. You can’t take any of it for granted.”

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Iowa relies on a paper-ballot system, and all 99 counties now are equipped with electronic poll books that help thwart any efforts to disrupt or “mess” with registration or election outcomes, Pate said.

He pointed to voter-identification changes adopted in 2017 as added safeguards but noted some elements have been challenged in court and a district court decision is expected next month.

“It seems to be the trend that if you don’t like legislation and you can’t win the battle in the Capitol, you go to court,” Pate told the conservative gathering.

He said a new law that combined city and school board elections will get its first test this November. Pate’s office has been working with county officials to make sure balloting goes smoothly in the combined election, which he hopes will encourage more Iowans to participate.

Pate said ongoing cybersecurity threats have made it clear that all aspects of government have to be protected, not just election systems.

“We know that there is a domino effect so we’re very concerned,” he said. “We’re very pleased with the step up that the counties have done. I’m feeling much better about where we’re at right now.”

In response to Pate’s comments, Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price issued a statement indicating he had no doubt Iowa will retain its first-in-the-nation status.

“It’s far too early to start speculating about our virtual caucus process, especially since the virtual caucus system hasn’t been built yet so it’s not possible it was hacked,” Price said.

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“Paul Pate needs to be focusing on securing Iowa’s elections and ensuring Iowans the right to vote, not our caucus process,” he added.

“While our plan has been conditionally approved, we are continuing conversations with the DNC and RBC as they further evaluate our plan,” Price said. “In the meantime, we’re continuing to prepare for February — we’ve locked nearly 80 percent of our locations and trained more than 400 people — putting us ahead of the pace set during previous caucuses.

“Security is a top priority as our organizing infrastructure continues to grow, and we’re confident that we will be prepared to host the most successful caucuses in our state’s history.”

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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