THE KEY

South Carolina election officials are confident their first-in-the-South primary will go smoothly on Saturday despite looming threats of Russian hacking, misinformation, or an Iowa caucus-style tech failure.

“We feel as confident as election officials can feel on the eve of a statewide election with the eyes of the world upon us,” Chris Whitmire, the State Election Commission’s director of public information, told me. 

That may sound like tempting fate after Iowa’s technical debacle delayed results for days and undermined confidence in the vote, and Nevada's caucus was dogged by security concerns. But Whitmire says the confidence is justified — largely because the primary is being run by professional election officials at the state and county level, unlike the caucuses that were run by those states' Democratic parties. 

“After Iowa, there were a lot of questions about is that going to happen [here]? And, if not, why not? Well, we do this every week. It’s what we do,” he said.

He sought to put as much distance as possible between prospects in South Carolina and what went down in Iowa. “God bless them, they're not election professionalsIt’s not just apples and oranges, it's apples and something else comparing a state-run primary to a caucus.” 

Indeed, the New Hampshire primary, which also was run by state election officials, came off without incident earlier this month. But the stakes are higher for South Carolina, which is facing its own unique blend of threats in its first presidential primary since the 2016 election was rocked by a Russian hacking and disinformation campaign.  

“Bad things happen and it’s not always going to be security related,” Chris Krebs, the Department of Homeland Security’s top cybersecurity official, said during the RSA security conference in San Francisco this week. “Things go awry in elections, Russians or not, every single time there is an election, so we've got to be prepared.”

Here's what South Carolina is up against: 

  • Threat of foreign interference: It’s the first primary since intelligence agencies said that Russia is interfering in the 2020 race trying to help Democratic front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and President Trump. It's unclear what form the assistance is taking.
  • Partisan efforts to undermine the vote: GOP activists launched “Operation Chaos,” urging Republicans to vote for Sanders in South Carolina's primary, which is open to all state residents. Even a perceived influx of Republican saboteurs could sow distrust among Democrats about the results, regardless of whether a foreign adversary like Russia lifts a finger.
  • New technology: This primary marks the largest election to date conducted with new touch-screen voting machines that South Carolina purchased statewide last year. While the machines include a paper record, replacing an outdated paperless system, some activists worry they aren't as secure as hand-marked paper ballots. 

Here's what the state has going for it: 

  • Security training: State and county officials have been drilling for how to manage hacking or other anomalies on election days for the past two years. They have paper ballots available if any of their electronic voting machines stop operating or appear untrustworthy.
  • Disinformation war room: The state election commission and the South Carolina Democratic Party are both monitoring social media for any signs of disinformation, especially about incorrect data about polling times and locations. State election officials will be in a virtual conference with DHS and state law enforcement all day to deal with any problems and have a hotline set up to Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies if they spot anything wrong.
  • Lawyers: The South Carolina Democratic Party also has lawyers staged in three locations across the state — Charleston, Columbia and Greenville — tasked with taking rapid action to combat disinformation and election suppression efforts, its chair Trav Robertson told me. 
  • Rapid response team: The party also has a “room full of millennials” who are ready to help knock back social media posts that promote incorrect information about the election or candidates but don’t directly violate social media companies’ policies, Robertson said. 

And as for “Operation Chaos,” Whitmire says he’s highly skeptical many Republicans will actually turn out. “It’s not the first time we’ve heard about something like this, and I've never had the sense that these types of efforts have any real traction,” he said. “It's hard enough to get people to vote for somebody who they want to elect, much less to vote for somebody they don't really want to get elected in this sort of twisted scheme.” 

The pressure is on: “By Saturday morning at 7 a.m., we will have the ability to adapt [and] move very quickly,” Robertson told me of the primary's start. “South Carolinians realize that the eyes of the world are on us and we want to make damn sure we pull this off well.”

Robertson is a veteran of campaigns in South Carolina, including serving as the state campaign director for Barack Obama in 2008. But he says the threat of Russian interference adds a greater burden — even for a state known for negative campaigning and rough-and-tumble politics. 

“I've been fortunate enough to know [people] involved in all of the campaigns here [but] I don't know Putin,” he said. “It would be presumptuous of us to assume they’re not going to attempt to do something. I think it is perfectly clear that the Russians prefer Donald Trump and they prefer chaos in our country because it means we're not focusing on our foreign policy with them.” 

PINGED, PATCHED, PWNED

PINGED: About one-third of Americans have little confidence that votes will be counted accurately in 2020, according to a poll from the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public affairs Research. 

Another third of Americans have high confidence votes will be counted accurately and the final third have moderate confidence, according to the poll. 

A deeper dive into the results reveals even more anxiety about election security. “About half of Americans say they are highly concerned that the country’s voting systems might be vulnerable to hackers, and about that many also are strongly concerned about foreign governments interfering by tampering with election results or influencing American attitudes,” the AP’s Mary Clare Jalonick and Hannah Fingerhut write

Democrats are more worried than Republicans, the poll found. About 60 percent of Democrats are very or extremely concerned that voting systems might be vulnerable to hackers compared to fewer than half of Republicans. 

PATCHED: The Senate approved $1 billion to help rural telecom providers strip gear from the Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE out of their systems and replace it with technology the government says will be less vulnerable to Chinese spying, the Wall Street Journal’s Katy Stech Ferek reports

The House has already approved a similar bill so the legislation now just awaits President Trump’s signature. Huawei gear accounts for only about 1 percent of the components in U.S. telecom networks, but it’s largely concentrated in rural areas that rely on federal funding.

The effort is part of a government-wide effort to clamp down on Huawei including banning the company from U.S. government networks and barring U.S. companies from supplying it with parts. Huawei denies it shares customer data with Beijing. 

PWNED: The Federal Communications Commission is expected to announce up to $200 million in proposed fines today against the nation’s top cellphone carriers for failing to safeguard information about customers’ real-time locations, the Wall Street Journal’s Drew FitzGerald and Sarah Krouse report

The fines stem from reports the carriers were sharing their customers’ location information with third-party companies who were sharing it with hundreds of other businesses with little regard for whether those companies were authorized to receive it.  

The FCC has already told top carriers about the proposed fines including AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, Drew and Sarah report. The carriers can still dispute the fines or say they should pay less before they’re formally imposed by the Justice Department, the Journal reports. 

PUBLIC KEY

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ZERO DAYBOOK

—Today:

  • RSA Conference 2020 is scheduled for Feb. 24 to 28 in San Francisco.

—Coming up

  • The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing titled “5G Supply Chain Security: Threats and Solutions,” on March 4 at 10 a.m.
  • The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Cyber Policy Initaitive will hold a discussion on the forthcoming Cyberspace Solarium Commission report on March 4 at noon.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on crime and terrorism will hold a hearing titled “Dangerous Partners: Big Tech and Beijing” on March 4 at 2:30 p.m.
  • The Cyberspace Solarium Commission will release of its final report and recommendations during a public event on March 11 at 2:30pm.