The Department of Homeland Security on Saturday urged state election officials to seek assistance in boosting cyber security ahead of November's elections, after hackers tapped into voter registration systems in a small number of states.
In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said 21 states have sought the Department's assistance to improve cyber security. Johnson said hackers have been scanning state computer systems, a possible prelude to actual cyber attacks.
"These challenges aren't just in the future — they are here today," Johnson said. "We must remain vigilant and continue to address these challenges head on. Before November 8, I urge state and local election officials to seek our cybersecurity assistance."
At least four states have had voter registration systems hacked in recent weeks. Officials in Arizona and Illinois said their systems had been improperly accessed this summer, and ABC News reported Thursday that at least two other voter registration systems were compromised.
But those voter registration systems are distinct from vote tabulation systems, which county, local and state election officials maintain independently of internet-based systems. That makes the tabulation system much more difficult to hack, experts say, without physical access to the tightly guarded voting machines themselves.
Johnson said DHS is unaware of any efforts to actually manipulate election-related or voter registration data.
In a meeting Thursday, two senior DHS officials told Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp they were not aware of any imminent threat to voting machines that will actually count ballots in November.
Johnson's statement comes amid a debate over the nation's election infrastructure. The Homeland Security department has proposed designating election systems as critical infrastructure, a designation that would require states to implement additional safeguards to protect their systems from cyber intrusion.
But state election officials are largely against such a designation. Those officials say a designation would place additional burdens on their offices without providing any new federal funding. Some also say the designation would step on states' constitutional responsibility to conduct elections.
In a letter Wednesday, House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' MORE and Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Biden looks to climate to sell economic agenda Justice Breyer issues warning on remaking Supreme Court: 'What goes around comes around' MORE said they would oppose a critical infrastructure designation.
"For over 200 years the states have overcome every challenge to ensure the smooth function of our democracy," the four Congressional leaders wrote in a letter to Todd Valentine, president of the National Association of State Election Directors. "[W]e would oppose any effort by the federal government to exercise any degree of control over the states' administration of elections by designating [election] systems as critical infrastructure."
Kemp, whose state is among those that have not sought DHS's help to improve cyber security, said state officials are best prepared to handle any potential intrusions into their computer systems.
"We're better equipped to be more proactive, to move quicker if something does happen, and to react," Kemp said.
Still, Kemp said, everyone is on alert for possible cyber attacks: "Everybody has an extra sense of urgency in a presidential election," he said.
Kemp, DHS Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity and Communications Andy Ozment and Thomas Hicks, chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, told a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Wednesday they did not believe it would be possible for hackers to alter the results of November's elections.