The Department of Homeland Security on Saturday urged state election officials to seek assistance in boosting cyber security ahead of November’s elections, after hackers tapped into voter registration systems in a small number of states. In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said 21 states have sought the Department’s assistance to improve cyber security. Johnson said hackers have been scanning state computer systems, a possible prelude to actual cyber attacks. “These challenges aren’t just in the future — they are here today,” Johnson said. “We must remain vigilant and continue to address these challenges head on. Before November 8, I urge state and local election officials to seek our cybersecurity assistance.” At least four states have had voter registration systems hacked in recent weeks. Officials in Arizona and Illinois said their systems had been improperly accessed this summer, and ABC News reported Thursday that at least two other voter registration systems were compromised. But those voter registration systems are distinct from vote tabulation systems, which county, local and state election officials maintain independently of internet-based systems. That makes the tabulation system much more difficult to hack, experts say, without physical access to the tightly guarded voting machines themselves.
Johnson said DHS is unaware of any efforts to actually manipulate election-related or voter registration data. In a meeting Thursday, two senior DHS officials told Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp they were not aware of any imminent threat to voting machines that will actually count ballots in November.
Johnson’s statement comes amid a debate over the nation’s election infrastructure. The Homeland Security department has proposed designating election systems as critical infrastructure, a designation that would require states to implement additional safeguards to protect their systems from cyber intrusion. But state election officials are largely against such a designation. Those officials say a designation would place additional burdens on their offices without providing any new federal funding. Some also say the designation would step on states’ constitutional responsibility to conduct elections.
In a letter Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Harry Reid said they would oppose a critical infrastructure designation.
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