Myriad election systems complicate efforts to stop hackers

Associated Press


A Senate report on Russian interference in U.S. elections highlights one of the biggest challenges to preventing foreign intrusions in American democracy: the limited powers and ability of the federal government to protect elections run by state and local officials. That has given fuel to those who argue for a larger federal role.

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday issued the first part of its report into Russian interference in the 2016 election, noting that Russian agents “exploited the seams” between federal government expertise and ill-equipped state and local election officials. The report also emphasized repeatedly that elections are controlled by states, not the federal government.

It called for the reinforcement of state oversight of elections – a view blasted as inadequate by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the committee. He called on Congress to establish mandatory cybersecurity requirements across the country.

“We would not ask a local sheriff to go to war against the missiles, planes and tanks of the Russian Army,” Wyden wrote. “We shouldn’t ask a county election IT employee to fight a war against the full capabilities and vast resources of Russia’s cyber army. That approach failed in 2016 and it will fail again.”

As the 2020 elections loom, questions of who bears responsibility for securing the vote are becoming more dire – even as President Donald Trump has been largely silent on the subject, and the Republican-controlled Senate has refused to consider legislation by Wyden and others to fortify election security.

Tensions flared in August 2016, when then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson raised the possibility of designating the nation’s election system, comprising some 10,000 separate jurisdictions, as critical infrastructure to free up federal resources to support states. Some state officials decried it as a “federal takeover” of elections.

Concerns were compounded in September 2017 when Homeland Security officials notified election officials in 21 states that their systems had been targeted by Russians. Authorities have since said they believe all states were targeted to varying degrees.