For all the uncertainty surrounding the Trump campaign’s associations with Russia, one thing remains clear: A foreign power interfered in the US presidential race, with hackers targeting the election systems of 21 states to do so. And yet the government has done precious little to keep it from happening again. The inaction stems not from laziness or ignorance but a deep, possibly unbridgeable divide between state and federal powers. So far this year, a handful of special elections in the US have gone smoothly, but the threat from Russia still looms, especially as the 2018 midterm races approach. France recently saw Kremlin-led meddling in its own presidential contest, and Germany has expressed fears over its upcoming election as well. Alarmism may not be productive, but states do have reason to worry. Local officials, though, have bristled at the Department of Homeland Security’s move to designate election systems as “critical infrastructure,” a move designed to unlock resources for system defense upgrades and improve state–federal communication. Everyone agrees that security matters; how to get there is another matter entirely.
The secretaries of state for each state (who, in most cases, act as the top election officials) argue that the move effectively federalizes elections, and imposes uniformity in a way that threatens the diversity and independence that makes the current US election system robust. It hasn’t helped matters that DHS continues to keep them in the dark about information relevant to potential threats—including which 21 states Russia breached.
“How many elections have they run? That would be zero,” says Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap about DHS. “The critical infrastructure designation gives me pause because it gives them significant control over how the states run their elections. While they say, ‘We have no intention of taking this over,’ the history of the relationship between the federal agencies and state governments is that they know better and they’re going to tell us what to do.”