Securing Election Infrastructure Against Foreign Interference
DON GONYEA, HOST:
National security officials came out in force this week saying definitively that Russia has tried to interfere in the 2018 midterms. Here's Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.
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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs. Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries.
GONYEA: So what can be done about it? We've called on David Becker, executive director and founder of The Center for Election Innovation & Research. He joins us now from New Orleans.
David Becker, welcome.
DAVID BECKER: Thanks, Don.
GONYEA: What are the threats to the upcoming midterm elections? What makes them vulnerable?
BECKER: Well, whenever you use technology as we do in almost everything in our daily lives, including elections, there are vulnerabilities that go along with that. And the Russians in particular have been working to exploit those vulnerabilities. We know, in 2016, they sought to intrude upon the infrastructure in several states and localities - in the election infrastructure. We also know they were only successful in one instance. In Illinois, they got into the statewide voter registration database. They didn't alter any records. It didn't impact the election. But certainly, it had an impact on voters' perception of the security.
And so it appears, based on what the national security officials are saying, Russia is certainly ramping up its efforts to do something similar again, probably with the goal of doing what they were successful with in 2016, which is to delegitimize democracy in general and get voters here in the United States to doubt the machinery of their democracy.
GONYEA: You mentioned statewide voter databases, but are we also talking just basic things like voting machines?
BECKER: So voting machines are technology. Whether you're voting on paper or you're voting on a touchscreen, there's technology involved to count those ballots. And so we have to be very careful about that. Now the good news is the response to this threat has been unprecedented. Federal officials from DHS and other agencies have been partnering with the state and local election officials to secure our elections as never before.
And so we've got to remain very vigilant, but the systems generally are not connected to the Internet. There are a lot of security protocols in place. And we're just going to have to make sure that we continue to build on that security over time. But even voting machines - we have to be careful about it. That's why voting on paper and having audits of elections is very, very important to confirm that the counts were accurate.
GONYEA: Can you give us some specific examples of how the U.S. is already responding to some of these threats?
BECKER: Sure. So so far, what's happened - many know that the federal government authorized $380 million to go to the states to help them with security. That money is a very good down payment on security, but they're going to need a more regular stream of funding long term because there's no finish line in cybersecurity. As you get better, the bad guys get better, too. Election officials from all 50 states and about a thousand local jurisdictions are now sharing information on threats as never before. The entity through which they're sharing this information didn't even exist a year ago. And that's now in existence, and they're sharing information, so they can see if the similar things that they're seeing in their jurisdiction are affecting other jurisdictions, and it helps us to connect the dots.
Election officials have really undertaken a lot of effort to make sure that they're training their staff, hiring better staff, so that they're not going to fall victim to things like spear phishing attempts - using better passwords, things along those lines. So a lot of very specific things have been done. The 2018 election will be more secure than any election we've ever held. But that being said, the 2020 election is going to have to be more secure than the 2018 election.
GONYEA: You mentioned the $380 million going to the states. Now that Trump officials are coming out and confirming foreign interference, do you think there'll be more federal support on top of that for making elections more secure?
BECKER: It's really hard to predict what's going to happen. Unfortunately, this has become somewhat of a partisan issue. And one thing I know for sure is this issue is too important for it to devolve into partisan politics. Republicans and Democrats who are working in the states and localities to secure elections are not looking at it as a partisan issue. I think I'm very hopeful that Congress will act accordingly and make sure that the funding that's necessary to secure these systems - not just in 2018 but going forward in 2020 and beyond - is available to the states.
GONYEA: Well, on the topic of partisanship, on Thursday, President Trump returned to an old line he's used before, calling Russian interference a hoax. Does that hurt these efforts?
BECKER: Well, it certainly doesn't help. The professionals in the national security apparatus of the federal government are clearly making very clear statements about the threat and what we need to do to combat it. And there's simply no doubt that it exists. Leadership coming from the White House would be very, very helpful here because we don't only need to secure our systems as targets. We also need to deter those who might otherwise interfere, and that's probably the point that's lacking right now - is there is no real effort for there to be a price to pay if someone interferes in our elections. And we need that to be there.
GONYEA: That was David Becker, the executive director and founder of The Center for Election Innovation & Research.
David, thanks for joining us.
BECKER: Thank you, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.