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Feds release $380 million for election cybersecurity

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Counties question how much of the $380 million Congress allocated for election security will reach counties, where elections are held. County officials offer their suggestions for how it could be spent

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission is notifying states this month about their allocation of the $380 million awarded by Congress to shore up election security. The funds were part of a spending bill recently signed by President Trump.

States are required to match 5 percent of the funds within two years of  their receipt. The funds can be used in the following ways:

  • Replace voting equipment that only records a voter’s intent electronically with equipment that uses a voter-verified paper record
  • Implement a post-election audit system that provides a high level of confidence in the accuracy of the final vote tally
  • Upgrade election-related computer systems to address cyber vulnerabilities identified through Department of Homeland Security or similar scans or assessments of existing election systems
  • Facilitate cybersecurity training for the state chief election official’s office and local election officials
  • Implement established cybersecurity best practices for election systems, and
  • Fund other activities that will improve the security of elections for federal office.

Counties administer and fund elections at the local level, overseeing more than 109,000 polling places and coordinating more than 694,000 poll workers every two years.

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See how much election security funding your state was awarded

It’s still up in the air how the money will be spent in each state, but some county election officials contacted by County News offered their ideas. To begin: Will counties see some of that money?

“I think it’s very possible counties will see some of that money, especially larger urban counties,” said Neal Kelley, registrar of voters, Orange County, Calif. “It’s earmarked for hardening networks, hardening systems and additional protections, so it can’t just be at the state level. They need to pass that through and down to the counties.”

For his county, Kelley said he would spend any funds on monitoring web traffic, upgrading firewalls, and enhancing the chain of custody and transportation of the ballots.

 

Where are the security risks?

“A huge chunk of the risk, in the elections infrastructure, is with the voter registration databases, that’s where the Russians hacked,” said Weber County, Utah Clerk-Auditor Ricky Hatch, whose state recently OK’d funding for new voting equipment purchases.

 “When they talk about the Russians trying to get into 21 states, it’s the voter registration databases they were trying to get into,” he said. “Most states are the managers and owners of voter registration databases and counties are participants, but it’s hosted and led by the state.” Hatch noted that another aspect of elections that needs to be shored up is election night reporting.

 

Aging voting machines

Some counties are using election equipment more than 10 years old, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The center recently surveyed 229 officials in 33 states who reported they need to replace their voting machines by 2020. But most do not have enough funds to replace them. The problems that can take place when using older machines include Election Day malfunctions resulting in longer lines and the possibility for hacks even if they are not directly connected to the Internet.

For counties considering new voting machines, the clock is ticking. Given the timeframe before the November elections, trying to use the funding to add new voting machines before then just is not doable, Cook County Director of Elections Noah Praetz said. “We’re seven months out from an election…the idea that you could turn around a procurement in that amount of time is exceedingly difficult.”

“This money only covers a small fraction of what’s necessary to upgrade,” he said. “Just given an installation cycle, there’s almost no way anybody could turn this money around to get equipment.”

 Praetz said there are plenty of other ways the funding could be put to good use. “It seems to be me the best use of the money in the next seven months is to get some real expertise into the local election officials’ offices,” he said, noting that Cook County has partnered with the Chicago Board of Elections to hire a chief elections security officer.

“I think there’s a significant amount of low-hanging fruit when it comes to these cybersecurity recommendations,” Praetz said. “The overwhelming majority are operating with just a handful of staff. A great many outsource most of the election preparation process.”

Funding isn’t the only help on the table.

The Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity advisors (CSAs) are trained personnel assigned to 10 regions throughout the country to help private sector entities and state, local, territorial and tribal governments prepare for — and protect themselves against — cybersecurity threats.

CSAs engage stakeholders through partnership and direct assistance activities to promote cybersecurity preparedness, risk mitigation and incident response.

CSAs also introduce organizations to various cybersecurity products and services through DHS at no cost, along with other public and private resources, and they act as liaisons to other DHS cyber programs and leadership.

CSAs also offer education and awareness briefings and perform cyber assessments including the Cyber Resilience Review, the External Dependencies Management Assessment and the Cyber Infrastructure Survey.

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