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Politics

Election security in 2020 means a focus on county officials, DHS says

It’s a local thing.

Florida Elections: A Ballot Recount

Elections run on local county officials. The DHS is focusing its efforts on county officials to secure the vote in 2020.

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation on Russian hacking and collusion with the Trump campaign ends, the Department of Homeland Security is gearing up to prevent a repeat for the 2020 US presidential election.

The federal agency, which formed the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency last November, said that it's "doubling down" on its efforts, calling election security for 2020 a top priority.

It hopes to do that by focusing on local election officials, Matt Masterson, a DHS senior adviser on election security, said in an interview with CNET.

The emphasis on local represents a new tact as the DHS tries to shut down foreign interference in the US elections. While the agency worked with all 50 states during the 2018 midterm elections, security experts said the outreach needs to zoom in on a county level. There are about 8,800 county election officials across the US, and they are the people responsible for your voting machines, your polling place's security and handling vote auditing.

"It may actually be the most important part of the entire infrastructure, these local county officials," said Jake Braun, executive director of the University of Chicago's Cyber Policy Initiative and co-founder of the Defcon Voting Machine Hacking Village.

Before the election in 2016, the DHS didn't have an established network of election officials to work with on security issues. It wasn't until hacking threats became a national concern during the last presidential election that the DHS ramped up its efforts.

A real threat

US Attorney General William Barr's summary of Mueller's report stated that up to 26 Russian nationals were behind hacking efforts and disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election.

These cyberattacks included hacks against the Democratic National Committee and access to voter registration databases.  

Since then, the DHS has provided state election officials with resources like penetration testing, weekly reports on vulnerabilities and sensors that could detect hacking attempts. Most of that outreach has been for high-level election officials in each state, but the DHS is now focusing on individual counties.

"We've done a good job reaching them, but we have a lot of area for growth there," Masterson said.

To do that, the DHS hired election security experts like Noah Praetz, the former director of elections in Cook County, Illinois. He's seen what county officials needed during the 2018 elections and has been addressing the DHS's gap with local election security since February.

Braun said Praetz has been traveling to meet with local election officials and addressing security concerns and explaining how the DHS can help.

Social disinformation awareness

The DHS is also hoping to train local election officials to help counter disinformation from social media. That was one of the agency's biggest concerns on Election Day in 2018, that people would spread lies on Facebook and Twitter to dissuade people from voting.

Masterson said the DHS is connecting social media companies with local election officials to help them identify disinformation online and prevent it from spreading. 

A Twitter spokesperson pointed at its efforts for the 2018 midterm elections, and said it will continue those efforts for the 2020 election. Facebook said it worked closely with the DHS in 2018 and intends to continue working with local election officials in 2020.

The social media giant said it set up a way for local election officials to contact Facebook directly if they see disinformation spreading.

"It really is about empowering the trusted messengers in that community to talk with the voters," Masterson said. "The county officials are directly engaged in the process, which is really important."

Resources lacking

Despite the hyperlocal outreach, both the DHS and local election officials are still challenged by a lack of resources. Masterson said the agency hopes to have 100 percent auditable systems by 2020, but a major roadblock is funding.

In 2018, Congress set aside $380 million for election security funds, which Masterson said was an "important first step" but not nearly enough to upgrade voting systems across the US.

"There's so many systems that support elections that need investments and upgrades," Masterson said. "Money remains a challenge, resources remain a challenge."

Lawmakers have proposed legislation that would direct $1.5 billion to county election officials to buy new voting technology. The For the People Act passed in the House but hasn't come up for a vote in the Senate.

"It's great to do an assessment and know where your vulnerabilities are, it's another to actually fix them," Braun said. "Congress has to pass this bill or no one is actually going to be able to implement the mitigation program."

States also aren't required to spend money on election security -- as it's currently a voluntary standard. Last June, a group of lawmakers introduced the Protecting American Votes and Elections Act, which would require paper ballots and audits on federal elections.

"The cybersecurity experts are clear: the most secure and cost-effective method of voting is hand-marked paper ballots," said Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon and one of the lawmakers behind the bill. "Anything else creates unnecessary risk while gouging taxpayers in order to enrich politically-connected voting machine manufacturers." 

But until it's mandatory, local counties aren't working with much funding, and the federal agency wants to make sure that every cent is wisely spent.

The DHS has been working to help county election officials, advising them last June on how to spend the $380 million election security funds.

"We are so focused on doing anything we can to support that," Masterson said. "It's not just based on a 'wouldn't-it-be-nice,' it's informed by risks we've seen out in the field."