Mitt Romney’s Senate run makes Utah’s election a target for Russian hackers, lieutenant governor says

Utah’s government systems face “hundreds of millions” of attacks each day from hackers in Russia, China and elsewhere, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said Tuesday.

And those attacks are likely to intensify ahead of November’s election, Cox said, as a result of past criticisms of Russia by Mitt Romney, the state’s Republican nominee for U.S. Senate.

“We knew that alone might make us more of a target,” Cox said of Romney’s candidacy.

Cox, who oversees elections in Utah, was confident the state’s government websites and voting systems can withstand the attacks. Millions of dollars have gone into updating Utah’s voting machines and cybersecurity protocols, he said, and the transition to a statewide vote-by-mail process decreases the likelihood of fraudulent votes on a mass scale.

“We have a paper trail for every vote that is cast in the state,” he said.

During his 2012 presidential campaign, Romney described Russia — and by extension Russian President Vladimir Putin — as the nation’s primary geopolitical foe. The comment was divisive at the time but took on new relevance during the 2016 presidential election, when the nation, according to the intelligence services, faced a choreographed disinformation and disruption campaign by Russian agents.

Russian-linked social media accounts have reportedly amplified anti-Romney sentiments, and attacks on Utah state systems have risen to as high as 1 billion in a single day, correlating with Romney’s nomination by the Utah Republican Party and his campaign for Senate.

A spokeswoman for the Romney campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Cox said he issued a memo to his staff emphasizing that ballot security in 2018 would be the top priority of his office. He said he was dismayed by reports after the 2016 election that a majority of Democratic voters believed vote totals had been changed and that nearly a majority of Republican voters believed undocumented residents had illegally cast ballots on a mass scale.

Both of those claims, Cox said, are verifiably false.

“We were very chagrined to see that type of misinformation that has spread out there,” he said.

Cox said his office worked with federal and state agencies to identify and correct vulnerabilities in the election system. He said he could not go into specifics on many of those strategies but spoke broadly about efforts to keep vote-counting and results-reporting procedures offline and implementing additional security measures for those systems — like voter registration — that are connected to the internet.

“We are doing more than we’ve ever done before,” he said. “We’re doing lots of things that we’ve never done before.”