DHS eyes new protections for electoral process

DHS eyes new protections for electoral process
© Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering classifying the country’s electoral process as “critical infrastructure,” Secretary Jeh Johnson said this week, opening the door to further protections.

The agency is responsible for protecting U.S. infrastructure, such as the power grid, from cyberattacks.

In response to claims from Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone MORE that the election may be "rigged" against him, President Obama on Thursday said that the administration “take[s] seriously our responsibilities to monitor and preserve the integrity of the vote process.”

"If we see signs that a voting machine or system is vulnerable to hacking, then we inform those local authorities who are running the elections that they need to be careful,” Obama said.

The suggestion has already been met with support from policy experts.

“Designating election infrastructure as ‘critical’ captures the commonsense notion that protecting elections from cyber-enabled manipulation is very important,” wrote Kristen Eichensehr, a former State Department official and law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

She notes that the U.S. has actually defined critical infrastructure very broadly. The term includes 16 sectors, including “commercial facilities sector” — such as professional sports leagues, casinos, campgrounds and motion picture studios.

The DHS is weighing the decision amid allegations of uncertainty about the integrity of the electoral process.

Obama on Thursday brushed off as “ridiculous” claims from Trump that the 2016 vote could be fixed for Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIt is wrong to say 'no collusion' 10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era And the winner of the Robert Mueller Sweepstakes is — Vladimir Putin MORE.

"I'm afraid the election is going to be rigged, I'm going to be honest," Trump on Monday said at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, citing a string of court decisions against voter ID and early voting laws in states such as North Carolina, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

“All of us ... have played sports or maybe just played in a schoolyard or a sandbox, and sometimes folks, if they lose, they start complaining they got cheated. But I never heard of somebody complaining about being cheated before the game was over or before the score was even tallied,” Obama said.

But Team Trump doubled down on the claims Friday, with campaign manager Paul Manafort saying he was "surprised" by Obama's rebuttal.

"Frankly, we think that the situation in the country, just like with the DNC’s [Democratic National Committee] primaries, is a situation where if you rely on the Justice Department to ensure the security of elections, we have to be worried," Manafort said on Fox News’s “America’s Newsroom.”

Security policy experts have expressed worry following the recent hack of the DNC's computer systems, which led to the release of thousands of internal emails on the eve of the Democratic National Convention last month.

Some believe the hack was an attempt by Russia to give Trump, thought to be the Kremlin’s favored candidate, a boost by damaging Clinton.

If true, security experts say, it has unnerving implications given the shaky infrastructure underlying most voting technology.

Researchers say digital security guidelines — which are often determined state by state — were not well established when electronic voting systems were being developed. Local electoral authorities often didn’t have the technical know-how to properly protect their machines, they say, so Russian operatives could in theory hack voting machines to color the results red.

In some tightly contested races, they wouldn’t have to alter the results much.

Or, in a firmly Democratic-leaning state, hackers could change a few votes to favor Clinton and deliberately leave a trail to force a dispute like the one that roiled the 2000 presidential election. Such a scenario could be deeply damaging to Clinton, who already faces speculation from Trump and his supporters that the system is biased in her favor.

“Even if they got caught, how much of that are we going to have to do before we have Bush v. Gore all over again?” said Jason Healey, a director at the Atlantic Council who has worked on cyber defenses at the White House.

Meanwhile, the voting process is becoming increasingly digitized. More people than ever are using the internet to register to vote and to request mail-in ballots. Some states have even become vote-by-mail only in recent years.

A series of data breaches overseas earlier this year highlighted concerns with the U.S.’s move toward electronic balloting.

Since December, hundreds of millions of voters in the U.S., the Philippines, Turkey and Mexico have had their data discovered on the web in unprotected form.

Experts say that insecure voter data could very easily create a pathway to massive voter fraud.