For nearly two decades, working for both Republicans and Democrats, Ken Matta’s job was to ensure election security in Arizona. He verified the accuracy of election machines, tightened cybersecurity and built firewalls to protect other data at the office of the Arizona secretary of state.
He’s stepping down as the state’s director of information security just months before voting begins for the next big election, and Matta is both reassured and worried.
“We have our layers of security,” Matta said. “They’re set up specifically so that if there’s a bad actor or two, we can still trust the vote count.”
But, he added, “There’s going to be hype, there’s going to be quibbling. I can feel it.”
Matta exudes the confidence of a professional deeply familiar with the intricacies of his job, knowing that the 2022 election in Arizona will once again capture the national spotlight. But the wave of mistrust and misinformation since the 2020 election has resulted in a loss for then-President Donald Trump, eroding faith in a process built on centuries of collaborative, bipartisan work, he said. .
Trust the pros; ignore the politicians
Matta has worked in information security for an estate of five Arizona Secretaries of State. His last day on the job was Friday, and he’s taking an election-related job in the private sector, lured by an offer that far eclipsed his state salary.
He has not yet specified where he will work. But he was quick to qualify it’s not with Dominion Voting Systems Corporation, the company that supplied tabulation machines for the 2020 Maricopa County election and became the target of baseless conspiracy theories in Arizona. and elsewhere.
His last piece of advice for voters who are still wary of the electoral process: trust the professionals and ignore the politicians.
Arizona’s election history is solid, he said, despite lingering suspicions and utter disbelief in the 2020 results, particularly in Maricopa County, where numerous audits, reviews and an ongoing investigation have provided no evidence of widespread fraud.
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Before reworking the electoral system, evidence of large-scale problems must exist, Matta said.
“I’ve never seen an election without some kind of fraud – piecemeal fraud like the one the Attorney General is now pursuing,” he said, like a woman voting for her deceased husband or a couple voting in Arizona and in the state where they have a summer house.
“But I’ve never seen an election whose results I don’t trust, in all the elections I’ve worked on.”
As for those who continue to doubt election professionals who argue that there was no widespread fraud, he said so in a long twitter thread as he announced his departure from the Secretary of State’s office:
“So go ahead and hire a pet groomer to wire up your house and have your butcher work on your car and keep thinking the politicians are telling you the truth,” he wrote. “See where it all takes you.”
What he saw on the Senate exam
Matta’s work over the past year has extended beyond working on stricter cybersecurity protocols and election procedures. He was selected as one of the Secretary of State’s official observers in the state Senate’s Republican-commissioned ballot review.
For weeks, he was at the state fairgrounds, watching Cyber Ninjas, the Senate contractor, oversee a hand count of Maricopa County’s 2.1 million ballots cast in 2020. What he saw went into a response that the Secretary of State’s office released following the review; it included numerous procedural errors that Matta and his colleagues made public.
He discovered that a wireless router was connected to the Cyber Ninjas’ computer network, a major breach as the Cyber Ninjas had boasted that his isolated network would block any potential connection to the Internet.
He reported it to company CEO Doug Logan, who called it an oversight and removed the router.
Matta began carrying a gun when he encountered armed protesters at the fairgrounds and when staffers in the Secretary of State’s office began receiving threats.
At the fairgrounds, he had to wear a bright pink t-shirt that identified him as an Observer, drawing sarcastic comments about his masculinity from the Cyber Ninjas work crew.
“We saw bad accounting practices, we saw bad technical practices and we had absolutely no understanding of what they were seeing,” Matta said of those reviewing the ballot. “They were just making up stories as they went.”
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On his last day as an observer, Matta found a parting gift at the place where he checked in daily. It was a cardboard box made to look like an urn. It was labeled “Qffiherel Nerd Box” – references to the QAnon conspiracy theory and the CIA.
Inside were various memorabilia from the scrutiny of the ballot, including a fake ballot and a fake seat reservation placing Matta in the front row for last July’s campaign rally with Trump. Red and green ink pens were stored in the box, reminiscent of the only color of pens allowed around the ballots. Cyber Ninjas initially gave volunteers blue ink pens to tally votes, despite a rule that color was not allowed because it could be interpreted as a voter’s legitimate mark on a ballot. . A reporter for The Arizona Republic detected the ink color error, which delayed the start of the vote count.
Matta thought he could turn the box over to the state archives. It was, after all, a remarkable period in Arizona history.
Better electoral security in place
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said Matta is leaving office in good shape to face the challenges of the upcoming election.
“I’m incredibly confident in the security posture of our organization, as well as that of the counties,” she said, noting that Matta brought together election officials from across the state to work on system improvements, by sharing new ideas and resources.
His office once occupied the information security position that Matta held. And the state is hiring an election security officer, a position Matta has taken the helm for in addition to his other duties.
Moreover, she says, he does not leave the electoral space. “He assured us he was a phone call away,” said Hobbs, a Democrat.
Other secretaries of state who have worked with Matta, including Republicans Jan Brewer and Ken Bennett, have also applauded his work.
“He was always professional,” said Bennett, who served as secretary of state from 2009 to 2015.
He later interacted with Matta when Bennett served as the state senate liaison for the ballot review at the fairgrounds. The harassment Matta faced, Bennett said, showed the “unfortunate distrust” people have of elections.
How to swim in muddy water
Matta said he didn’t know what it would take to overcome that mistrust.
“The water is so muddy now,” he said, referring to the various forms of misinformation, half-truths and outright lies that have fueled the belief of many in the “Big Lie” that the elections of 2020 have been stolen.
“If we don’t go back to our reliable sources of information in this country, I don’t know how it’s going to clean up,” Matta said.
In the case of elections, those “reliable sources” are county recorders, the secretary of state’s office and the Arizona Citizens’ Own Elections Commission, he said. They are part of a larger network of election professionals who have built a system based on policies endorsed by Republicans and Democrats.
Crucially, he said, the system works on layers of procedures that are established before an election is held, which protects against last-minute changes.
Among his biggest fears, election deniers are filling vacancies created by the departure of election workers.
“Now is a good time to quit the election,” Matta said, given the threats and harassment directed at people who work in this field.
Replacement workers, he said, can come with agendas and some might change their minds once they see the kinds of safety processes in place.
“Some might cause damage because then they will have an insider advantage over a false narrative,” he said. The possibility of a threat from within is his greatest concern.
Last month, Matta helped organize a workshop for county and state election officials who imagined worst-case scenarios for the upcoming election. The main concerns for 2022 are physical threats to workers and IT security issues.
Matta is also wary of political observers. Political parties can send one person to each polling station and, in a hyperpartisan atmosphere, they can cause problems, he said.
Last month’s workshop envisioned disruptive observers being escorted out of a polling station, then sharing online videos of them being kicked out, asking why they were being kicked out, casting doubt on what is happening at the site.
Again, he said the best response is to talk to election officials.
“Call your county recorder,” he said. Polling stations are set up to answer questions from voters and to help them understand, for example, why their absentee ballot has not arrived or where to find their polling station.
“Getting it from the experts is exactly what this country needs to do now, isn’t it?” he said, a hint of hope accentuating his words.