State officials press Congress for more election cyber resources

State officials press Congress for more election cyber resources
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State election officials on Tuesday urged members of Congress to send more resources to states to bolster the security of their election IT infrastructure. 

Officials from Rhode Island and Virginia made the plea to Democratic members of a task force focused on election cybersecurity that was formed in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

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“States need additional funding and resources dedicated to the security of election systems,” Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea (D) told lawmakers at the public forum on Capitol Hill. “These funds are critically needed for the assessments, testing procedures and the strengthening of IT capacity. In many states, they also need funding for the hardware of voting systems themselves.” 

Gorbea urged Congress to play a “critical role” by both appropriating additional resources to states for election cybersecurity and exercising oversight of the federal government’s efforts to safeguard future elections. 

According to U.S. officials, Russia targeted election-related systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 vote. This included successful attempts in Arizona and Illinois, where voter registration databases were breached. 

Virginia was among the 21 states notified by the Department of Homeland Security in September that their election systems had been targeted by Russian hackers, according to The Associated Press

While the systems targeted were not involved in vote tallying, the issue has nevertheless triggered scrutiny of the security of voting tallying systems as well as voter registration databases.

Both Rhode Island and Virginia have recently scrapped old, outdated voting technology in favor of more secure systems to ensure voter confidence in election results. 

Virginia in September moved to get rid of touchscreen voting machines ahead of the upcoming November gubernatorial election amid concerns about their security. Virginia Department of Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortés said Tuesday that the final decision was triggered by a demonstration at the DEF CON cybersecurity conference in July in which security experts breached numerous types of voting machines with ease.

“Congress needs to ensure that sufficient federal funding is available for states to procure and maintain secure voting equipment and increase security of all elections,” Cortés stressed. “That needs to be an ongoing commitment and not a one-time infusion of resources.” 

He also floated the possibility of lawmakers establishing a federal certification protocol to provide a baseline for states to meet when it comes to cybersecurity of election-related systems.

Both state officials expressed support for Homeland Security’s efforts to engage with state and local officials on election security. Homeland Security has come under fire from some state officials for offering delayed or misleading information on Russia’s targeting efforts.

“I would like to stress how important it is to have better communication between the Department of Homeland Security and our country’s chief state election officials,” Gorbea said Tuesday. “Being able to quickly disseminate information on potential threats and respond effectively is critical.” 

Homeland Security is providing states with optional cybersecurity assistance for election infrastructure, as part of the decision to designate it as critical infrastructure back in January. 

The Democratic task force on election security held its second public forum on Tuesday, after meeting with former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson late last month.

Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Robert Brady (D-Pa.) set up the task force earlier this year out of frustration that committees they sit on were not doing enough to investigate Russia’s election interference.

Currently, the House and Senate Intelligence committees as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee are probing Russia's efforts.