Senators urge Fla. officials to work with DHS to protect voting systems

Senators urge Fla. officials to work with DHS to protect voting systems
© Greg Nash

Florida’s bipartisan pair of U.S. senators is pressing state election officials to ask the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for help securing voting systems from cyberattacks ahead of upcoming elections. 

Following Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign — which included efforts to target or hack into state voter databases and other systems — Homeland Security began offering cybersecurity assessments and other services to state and local officials who request them in order to secure systems. 

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On Monday, Florida Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSchumer to GOP: Cancel 'conspiracy hearings' on origins of Russia probe Trump administration designates B of PPP funds for community lenders The Memo: Trump's Scarborough tweets unsettle his allies MORE (R) and Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonLobbying world The most expensive congressional races of the last decade Lobbying world MORE (D) wrote to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner encouraging him to request help from the department in guarding the state’s systems before voters head to the polls later this year, pointing to the risk of future foreign meddling efforts.

“County election boards should not be expected to stand alone against a hostile foreign government. The Committee recommended — and DHS now offers — a wide range of services to state and local officials that will support your efforts to make your systems secure,” the senators wrote. 

“DHS will follow your lead and meet your needs with a tailored set of options. We encourage you in the strongest terms to take advantage of those resources, and to let us know about your experience with DHS and FBI,” they wrote. 

Homeland Security officials have said that Russia-aligned hackers targeted digital systems in 21 states leading up to the 2016 election and, in a small number of cases, successfully broke into systems. Officials maintain that none of the systems targeted were involved in vote tallying and that there is no evidence any votes were changed.

The letter from Rubio and Nelson cites the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election. The Senate Intelligence Committee, on which Rubio sits, recently backed up the intelligence community’s conclusions about efforts to target state systems in its own investigation of Russian meddling.

“The Committee further reported that, because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) depends on states and localities self-reporting suspicious activity, and that activity is often difficult to find, ‘it is possible that additional activity occurred and has not yet been uncovered,’ ” they wrote. 

More than a dozen states have signed up to receive Homeland Security’s most rigorous assessment, called a “risk and vulnerability assessment,” and the department has been working to prioritize its resources to ensure they are completed by the November elections. A Homeland Security official told The Hill on Tuesday that the department has received requests from 17 states for these assessments, and has completed 12 of them. 

Homeland Security is also conducting remote "cyber hygiene" scans for systems in 34 states and 34 counties or localities, the official said. And, the department has stepped up information sharing on cyber threats with state election officials. 

Some states were initially suspicious of Homeland Security’s efforts, fearing a federal takeover of elections, which have historically been run by state and local officials. 

Federal efforts to secure state systems have gone beyond those underway at Homeland Security. Congress used a massive appropriations package earlier this year to allocate $380 million to states to immediately upgrade outdated, unsecure systems. Last month, federal officials approved Florida’s request for $19 million of the pot. 

Florida voters will head to the polls for the state’s primary election in late August and for the general election on Nov. 6. 

“Elections run by local officials are the bedrock of our democracy. Our decentralized system is a strength, but it also means that responsibility resides with each of us to be sure our locality is secure,” Rubio and Nelson wrote on Monday. “We look forward to working with you, DHS, and FBI to ensure successful and secure elections this year.”

Updated at 11:28 a.m. to reflect figures from DHS.