In 2016, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson found that state election officials were suspicious of federal offers of assistance in defending their voting systems from cyber attack. He tried to persuade them to accept DHS designation of those systems as “critical infrastructure,” which would have given states access on a priority basis to a range of protections. The response he received ranged from “neutral to negative.” DHS concluded that, in the middle of an election, it was best not to have a protracted, politicized fight over this step. It focused on providing assistance where it could, and a large number of jurisdictions requested help. In January 2017, even with officials remaining skeptical about the designation, Secretary Johnson proceeded to issue it.
According to Johnson, and as further reflected in reporting by The Washington Post, election officials resisting this engagement with the federal government viewed it as a threat to” states rights.” At least one, Brian Kemp of Georgia, suspected that the Administration might be using the claimed Russian interference as a ploy to advance the political prospects of its favored candidate, Hillary Clinton. Kemp and others were not convinced that the Obama Administration had properly fixed blame on the Russians. Congressional Republican leadership stayed close to their state allies on these points, also stressing the rights of states and declining to embrace the finding of Russian intrusions.
This is a revealing part of the 2016 story: government at war with itself, in the grip of partisanship, when under cyber attack from a foreign government. The attack was directed at the electoral process, and yet it was still not enough to produce a unified, fully coordinated federal and state response. For all the progress in bipartisan election administrative reform in recent years–and there has been a fair measure of it–Johnson’s account exposes key, and altogether familiar, structural obstacles.