Senator asks DHS for plans to treat election infrastructure as critical

Senator asks DHS for plans to treat election infrastructure as critical

A Democratic senator is looking for answers on whether the Trump administration will keep in place the designation of election infrastructure as “critical” and, if so, how the new administration plans to implement it. 

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillOn Capitol Hill, few name names on sexual harassment Democrats scramble to contain Franken fallout  Gillibrand to donate money from Franken's PAC MORE (D-Mo.) directed a number of questions at Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly in a letter this month in order to better understand the designation, which was made by his predecessor Jeh Johnson just weeks before Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaReport: FCC chair to push for complete repeal of net neutrality Right way and wrong way Keystone XL pipeline clears major hurdle despite recent leak MORE left the White House. 

The designation was also made in timing with the release of the intelligence community’s report on Russian election interference, which assessed that Russian intelligence accessed elements of state and local electoral boards.

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In doing so, the Obama administration opened up election infrastructure—including polling places, vote tabulations locations, and technology such as voting machines and registration databases-–to federal protections upon request from state and local governments. 

The move invited strong opposition from some state-level officials. The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) adopted a bipartisan resolution in February opposing the designation and has asked DHS to outline its legal parameters.

“Several state secretaries of state have raised questions regarding how DHS plans to implement this designation and what it means for their states’ independent authority to oversee elections,” McCaskill wrote in the March 7 letter, which was first reported by Politico on Wednesday. 

McCaskill, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked for responses from Kelly to a number of questions by Friday in order to “better understand the designation and [his] plans for implementation.” 

Specifically, the senator asked for a tally of state, local, tribal, and territorial governments that asked DHS for help securing their voting systems ahead of the November presidential election and whether any additional governments have requested assistance since the designation.

All 50 states were reported to have requested aid from federal officials to shore up their voting systems before the election, following reports of breaches of databases in Illinois and Arizona.

McCaskill also directed Kelly to spell out the assistance and tools the DHS can provide to help state and local officials with voting security, and asked if the department needs more personnel, money or authorities to fulfill its new responsibilities with the designation. 

“Will the designation of election infrastructure as a critical infrastructure subsector continue under the Trump administration?” she asked. 

While the intelligence community said in January that Russia had accessed state and local electoral boards, the report on Moscow’s election meddling noted that the DHS determined that the systems targeted were “not involved in vote tallying.” McCaskill asked Kelly how the department came to this conclusion. 

The Democratic senator also asked why the designation extends federal protections to both physical and virtual assets of voting infrastructure given that “the 2016 election interference solely involved cyber-attacks and DHS is only offering cyber-related assistance.” 

Kelly has not yet responded to the letter, an aide told The Hill, and has until Friday to do so.

Kelly indicated in February that he would keep the designation in place, telling a House panel, “I believe we should help all of the states to make sure their systems are protected, so I would argue we should keep that in place.” 

Johnson acknowledged the unpopularity of the move when he announced it in January, though he emphasized that the designation did not amount to a “federal takeover” of elections.

He couched the decision as an effort to make election infrastructure a cybersecurity priority but did not go into detail about the type of assistance DHS would provide or the scope of its powers.