National Security

Election Officials Convene in D.C. Amid Continued Friction Over Voting Security, Russian Propaganda Concerns

Secretaries of state have had to defend their turf against increased federal desire to have hand in election security

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Top election officials from around the country will be meeting in Washington, D.C., this weekend amid a flurry of news reports and political debates over the last two weeks about election security.

Because administering elections is a function of the states and not the federal government, state and federal officials have appeared in tension as hearings on Capitol Hill continue to suggest the federal government wants a greater role in providing security and oversight.

With the intense public scrutiny on Russia's meddling in the 2016 elections, many of the secretaries of state say they have found themselves in a constant battle of dispelling myths about voting security and rebutting media reports, while walking a delicate balance accepting federal help on issues such as cybersecurity while also preserving the autonomy given to states by the Constitution.

The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) is hosting one of its biannual meetings in Georgetown beginning Friday and concluding on Sunday. NASS is a non-partisan organization that aims to foster a collaborative culture where "best practices" can be shared among the various states.

At least three sessions on Saturday will address concerns about election security, according to the NASS Winter Conference agenda, and those panels will include federal officials. While all officials involved share the same goal of making elections as secure as possible, there have been tensions and occasional disagreements between state and federal officials in the last year and a half.

For example, in the last days of the Obama administration, former DHS director Jeh Johnson designated the nation’s voting systems as "critical infrastructure," which then allows DHS to interface with state voting officials. The Trump administration later announced they'd be keeping the "critical infrastructure" designation in place. At the time, NASS passed a resolution against the designation, but in recent months more progress has been made towards a cooperative agreement.

"The National Association of Secretaries of State as a whole was concerned about a designation of critical infrastructure when [DHS] didn't seem to have much knowledge as to what was happening, in terms of how states run elections, how counties run elections," said Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams.

"Having said that, the decision was made, it was made by the Obama administration, and it was renewed by support from the Trump administration, and so now we're working cooperatively."

In October, secretaries of state from NASS and DHS officials adopted a charter for a "Government Coordinating Council," which begins a more formal process of information and technological sharing between federal and state officials.

The level of cooperation achieved in that regard could impact the ongoing debate between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill over the federal Election Assistance Commission. House Republicans voted earlier in the week to defund the agency, while Democrats released a report that asks for hundreds of millions of dollars for voting infrastructure projects, some of which was earmarked to boost the EAC's funding.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says the EAC was created with a definite purpose from the 2002 Help America Vote Act. "That meant things like what types of technology we should be embracing, what parameters we should be implementing, accessible voting, that type of thing: How we should be spending our money, what was proper to spend money on," Dunlap told the Washington Free Beacon. "Well, mission accomplished."

"And so really the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, you can make a really strong argument that they have fulfilled their mission," Dunlap added. "The concern about them has been, how do they reinvent themselves and maybe give themselves rulemaking authority to then gradually have the federal government take over elections?"

Dunlap's view isn't universal among the secretaries. Williams, for instance, says the EAC has been very helpful.

Several secretaries in the past year say they've constantly battled misperceptions prompted by media stories that use the words "election" and "hacking," arguing that the headlines in particular have conflated Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts with actual voting security.

"The propaganda [from Russian sources] certainly may exist, certainly there's evidence that it has," Williams said. "But it has nothing to do with at all with voting machines, the voting processes, the tabulation processes. And so when you see a statement or an article that says, ‘The Russians interfered with the election, they bought Facebook ads,' that is completely mixing two very different things."

Dunlap says because each state has their own voting systems, it creates a decentralized method, which then becomes a strength against a large-scale hack.

"It's not like a ‘Star Wars' movie where you have to sneak into the central core and flip the switch to take down the shields," Dunlap said, adding that Maine uses all-paper ballots which can't be changed by an internet cyberattack. "There is no central switch."

There's been an ongoing struggle in determining just how effective Russian efforts to execute cyberattacks on state voting systems have been.

Last Friday, NBC News released an interview with the head of the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity division who said that Russian hackers successfully penetrated a "small number of states" in 2016, something NASS President and Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson disputes. DHS even disputed the report later, claiming that the news outlet, "misrepresented facts and confused the public with regard to Department of Homeland Security and state and local government efforts to combat election hacking."

Some voting for 2018 has already begun or is just days away. For example, Texas will hold primary voting on March 6.