The presidential candidates are not the only ones worried about the outcome of the upcoming November general election. With Election Day less than a month away, recent increases in cyberattacks and data breaches have state election officials throughout the country on edge. Voting systems nationwide are in jeopardy and many states are turning to the federal government for help. News reports indicate that voter registration systems in nearly half of all states have been targeted by foreign hackers.

Election systems are not a big line item allocation in state budgets, so finding any funds to mitigate data breaches is challenging. And, although officials of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) say they have confidence in the integrity of the country’s electoral systems, they admit that the increased sophistication of cyber hackers makes voting systems extremely vulnerable.

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In response to DHS pronouncements that hackers have attempted to infiltrate voter registration and administration systems in at least two dozen states, the agency now offers a variety of cybersecurity-related services to state and election officials. More than 20 states already have asked DHS cybersecurity experts for on-site risk and vulnerability assessments. Another service offered to state and election officials is remotely-conducted cyber scans on Internet-connected election systems such as online voter registration and election night reporting systems. These scans can identify vulnerabilities of election systems and make recommendations to improve their security.

Concern has been growing among state election administrators after a series of hacking incidents that some federal officials say were attempted on behalf of the Russian government. The recent hacking of the Democratic National Committee focused an even brighter light on the cybersecurity issue in the United States.

In recent weeks, major news outlets have continued to report that DHS is studying reports of hackers targeting voter registration databases in more than 20 states, the FBI issued warnings as well. In fact, the FBI confirmed that the Illinois State Board of Elections system had been hacked and that attempts were made to breach Arizona’s election systems.

The Illinois breach resulted in information related to 90,000 voters being accessed. And, although officials there said they were confident no records were altered or changed, the information on voter records – name, address, date of birth, driver’s license number and email addresses – are attractive to hackers, who sell that information to third parties. That information can result in identify theft or illegal financial activities.

The FBI told Arizona officials that Russians were behind the hack on their state election system. Officials shut down the voter registration system for almost a week. Arizona has since entered into a partnership with DHS, the FBI and numerous higher education institutions because of the issue. The new Cyber Threat Response Alliance is charged with identifying and reducing network vulnerabilities.

With the Presidential Election looming, the FBI and DHS issued an alert to all election officials to increase their efforts to enhance security of their computer systems. And as reports of cyber intrusions regarding voting systems continue to grow, speculation is that there will be increased efforts in the future to have DHS include state election systems as part of what is called “critical infrastructure” nationwide – alongside energy, water, transportation and communication systems – that are key to the economy, national security and overall health of Americans.

Such a designation would warrant federal protection, and state election officials could request federal assistance to protect vulnerable voting systems. A bill currently before Congress would require just that. In addition to voting systems being designated as critical infrastructure, the bill would also require DHS to devise and submit a plan to Congress that would protect the U.S. election process from cyberattacks.

It is important to would-be voters in this country that the personal information they submit when they register to vote remains both private and protected. If that information is not secure, attempts to increase voter registration will surely suffer and the nation will suffer as a democracy.  

Mary Scott Nabers is president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships Inc., a business development company specializing in government contracting and procurement consulting throughout the U.S.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.