PARKER, Ariz.—The test began at 8 a.m. last Tuesday. Secretary of State Michele Reagan, four staffers and a freelance Spanish-language interpreter cast 138 votes on 40 ballots using seven touch-screen machines. The mood was jovial—until a printout showed the numbers on one machine didn’t line up with the master list of votes.
Janine Petty, Arizona’s deputy state election director, scanned the printout and quickly discovered another of Ms. Reagan’s staffers had voted for two of the wrong candidates. The machine had worked perfectly, after all.
Ms. Reagan jokingly admonished the sheepish staffer, telling him he should go on their fictional “Wall of Shame.”
Across the country, state election officials are carrying out final tests on tens of thousands of voting machines that are part of a multistep process that delivers results in local, state and federal contests. Next week, the last of more than 120 million ballots are expected to be cast in a watershed election to determine who controls the White House, Congress and the direction of the Supreme Court.
In a span of hours, the votes will be counted in places ranging from the Moose Lodge in Key West, Fla., to a fire hall in Kodiak, Alaska, relayed to state capitals and then broadcast around the world. The process was designed so the federal government didn’t oversee it, but new fears about hackers from abroad have led to a scramble to see if the security protocols in place are sufficient.
In Arizona, officials have been on edge for months. In July, a Russia-linked hacker posted online the stolen login credentials of a Gila County election official, spooking Ms. Reagan and others around the country. They know now that protecting the voting process means guarding against much different threats than they have confronted in the past.
“We’re not dealing with a couple of kids sitting in their bedroom,” she said, sitting on an eight-seat plane on the way to Parker. “It’s cyberwarfare. These little state agencies are not the Pentagon. We don’t have the resources.”
Hackers have scanned the election systems of at least 20 states, U.S. officials said, and now close to 40 states are working with the Department of Homeland Security to try to protect their election systems from digital tampering.
As part of that effort, DHS is running a scan of the internet-linked state election systems to look for vulnerabilities, such as digital doors that hackers might be able to open. Through these reviews DHS officials learned that roughly 20 states had their election systems “scanned” by outside groups in a way that is akin to casing out a site for a future robbery, a DHS official said.
DHS officials also discovered a broad range of computer security tools are used by states, and some needed to have their software updated or put in place new protections. They haven’t yet found any “catastrophic” weaknesses, the DHS official said.
Beyond cyber issues, there are other concerns. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has promoted unsubstantiated rumors of vote rigging and fraud, saying illegal immigrants have entered the U.S. from Mexico and will cast millions of votes.
Arizona has dealt with voting challenges for decades. taking pride in its history as a hardscrabble libertarian frontier At one time, it loaded ballots onto mules for a 10-mile trek from a polling site at the base of the Grand Canyon to its rim. But in July, the state had to take the entire voter registration system offline to ensure that the hacker who had stolen the Gila County login credentials hadn’t tampered with the information of 3.4 million voters.
Russian officials have denied trying to interfere in the November elections, but the threat has awakened new fears.
“No one, not even the federal government, can protect themselves against the most sophisticated threat,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, an election security expert and chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “What you see is people realizing that we have not been attuned to certain threats. Everyone is adopting armor.”
Even though Ms. Reagan and other state officials believe their voting machines cannot be hacked, they worry that antagonists could confuse the public by publishing false results on social media or temporarily knocking a state election site offline.
Arizona is considered a reliably Republican state, but this year is different and that is raising the stakes for election officials. Polls suggest the presidential race here is tied. GOP Sen. John McCain has had to work to fight off a challenge from Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. Longtime Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, a Republican, risks being ousted. And there are separate ballot measures that would legalize marijuana and raise the minimum wage to $12 by 2020. Voter enrollment numbers have soared.
Here in La Paz County, voter enrollment has jumped to 9,000 this year from around 8,000 in 2014. Election director Kevin Scholl watches the state election testers with a forced smile, hoping they don’t uncover any problems with his machines, which are more than 10 years old and will be replaced soon.
When they aren’t in use, the machines are sealed and locked down the hall, in a room that abuts a computer closet, which is also disconnected from the internet. Once voting is complete, memory cards are pulled out of the machines and loaded into that computer system in the secure room. The votes are tallied and then loaded onto a memory card, which is put into a different computer that sends the results securely to Ms. Reagan’s team in Phoenix. Each of Arizona’s 15 counties follows the same process.
Ms. Reagan and her team wrapped up in Parker before 11 a.m., and then re-boarded their plane and flew 30 minutes to Yuma, a larger town near the Mexico border. She brought with her Ken Matta, a systems administrator who has been conducting tests since 2002.
In Yuma, they were met by Robyn Stallworth Pouquette, the county recorder. Her office has received calls for weeks from people voicing concerns that the election will be “rigged.”
The board of supervisors’ office in Yuma County is in an old bank, and the ballots are locked in a giant vault. Within minutes, Ms. Reagan and her team cast 2,906 votes on the machines there, looking for discrepancies.
Standing with Ms. Pouquette was Paul Melcher, deputy county administrator, who is serving as interim head of elections. They ran through numerous contingency plans for Nov. 8. What do they do if there is a natural disaster? A terrorist attack? The power goes out?
“You try to plan for the unexpected,” he said.
At 12:02 p.m., Ms. Petty collected paperwork and the votes in Yuma lined up perfectly.
“Everything was beautiful,” she told Ms. Pouquette and Mr. Melcher.