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Homeland Security sending advice to election officials to protect voting machines from cyberattack

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, shown in April on Capitol Hill, says that "the nature of cyber threats has evolved.” (Lauren Victoria Burke / Associated Press)
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, shown in April on Capitol Hill, says that "the nature of cyber threats has evolved.” (Lauren Victoria Burke / Associated Press)

The Department of Homeland Security is preparing advice for election officials to better protect electronic voting machines, online ballots and vote counts from hackers, following the high-profile breach of Democratic National Committee emails, the head of the department said Wednesday.

“We are actively thinking about election cyber security right now,” Jeh Johnson said at a breakfast with reporters in Washington hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Any effort to guard election computers from being breached is complicated by the fact that there are more than 9,000 different voting jurisdictions in the U.S., and each has its own leadership and way of operating, he said.

“There are some short-term and long-term things I think we should do to bolster the cyber security around the election process,” Johnson said, stopping short of detailing what kinds of weaknesses hackers could find to influence election results. “There are various different points in the process we have to be concerned about,” he said.

After the problem of hanging "chads” on punch cards confounded vote counters in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Congress moved to overhaul the electoral process. Since 2002 it has allocated more than $3 billion in grants to help local officials upgrade voting processes and equipment.

In some areas, officials purchased computerized voting systems to replace punch-card machines. But some digital voting booths don’t leave a paper trail, and a few are connected to the Internet in order to receive software updates from the manufacturer, which has lead to concerns that results could be altered by hackers.

In addition, some voting jurisdictions allow military service members stationed overseas to vote online, a system that experts believe could be vulnerable to hackers.

We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process, is critical infrastructure, like the financial sector, like the power grid.

Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security secretary

The 2002 law “raised the bar” for securing ballots, Johnson said. “But there is more to do,” he added. “The nature of cyber threats has evolved.”

Anxiety about outside influence over election results is high. Supporters of Hillary Clinton have expressed concerns that Russian hackers, who are believed to have infiltrated a computer network of the Democratic National Committee, might try to adjust tallies in Trump’s favor. Some suspect Russia might prefer Trump because he has vowed to improve relations with Russia and said he would reconsider U.S. commitments under NATO to protect former Soviet Bloc states in Eastern Europe.

Trump told voters in Ohio this week that he, too, was afraid the November election is “going to be rigged.”

Homeland Security officials are debating whether the U.S. election system should be considered “critical infrastructure,” a designation that could prompt the department to spend more time and resources on protecting the integrity of vote tallies, Johnson said.

“We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process, is critical infrastructure, like the financial sector, like the power grid,” Johnson said. “There’s a vital national interest in our electoral process,” he said.

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