DHS designates election systems as 'critical infrastructure'

DHS designates election systems as 'critical infrastructure'
© Greg Nash

The Obama administration on Friday afternoon announced that it has designated the country’s election infrastructure as ‘critical,’ a move that brings added federal protections to voting systems. 

“Given the vital role elections play in this country, it is clear that certain systems and assets of election infrastructure meet the definition of critical infrastructure, in fact and in law,” Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said in a statement.

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The administration has been weighing the move for some time. The announcement coincides with a report from the Intelligence Community detailing its assessment that Russia undertook a widespread influence and cyber campaign targeted at helping Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUkrainian president urges US to confront Russian aggression Trump tweets get-well wishes to Bush family Overnight Tech: Five tech takeaways from Commerce pick's hearing | Groups accuse Facebook of 'censorship' | Wireless auction moves ahead | Pokemon Go at Davos MORE win the White House.

The Intelligence Community said Friday that no voting machines were tampered with during the 2016 election — but the breadth of the Russian cyber activity throughout the campaign raised the specter that the election infrastructure is vulnerable to digital intruders. The IC did find that Russian intruders breached elements of multiple state and local electoral boards.

The new designation will cover storage facilities, polling places, and centralized vote tabulations locations used to support the election process, as well as information and communications technology like voter registration databases, voting machines and other systems used to manage the election process and report results.

Some state and local election officials have expressed strong opposition to applying the designation in the past, arguing that it is a federal overreach.

Before the election, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp argued against designating the elections a critical infrastructure, arguing that states can make more nimble choices for their own communities without assistance from the federal government.
 
"Designating voting systems or any other election system as critical infrastructure would be a vast federal overreach, the cost of which would not equally improve the security of elections in the United States," he said in an email to Nextgov in August. 
 
Johnson said he is aware of the opposition he faces.

“Prior to reaching this determination, my staff and I consulted many state and local election officials; I am aware that many of them are opposed to this designation,” Johnson said Friday.

“This designation does not mean a federal takeover, regulation, oversight or intrusion concerning elections in this country. This designation does nothing to change the role state and local governments have in administering and running elections.”

Instead, he argued, it will allow the DHS to prioritize cybersecurity assistance to officials who request it and serve as deterrent to foreign interference.

“The designation makes clear both domestically and internationally that election infrastructure enjoys all the benefits and protections of critical infrastructure that the U.S. government has to offer,” Johnson said.

In a statement, Homeland Security Committee ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), commended Johnson for the decision. 

"In the long term, this will put our electoral systems on a more secure footing and maintain public confidence in our elections," he said. "For future elections at all levels, State officials who want to engage with DHS on enhancing the cyber and physical security of their electoral systems will have Federal partner working with them.”

Sectors deemed critical infrastructure gain streamlined access to classified threat information sharing, opportunities for added training and various other tools aimed to help both public and private entities.

There are 16 other critical infrastructure sectors, including emergency services, energy and communications. 

Joe Uchill contributed