Congress Reviews Security for Upcoming Federal Election

August 4, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Voters in Hialeah, Fla., cast their midterm ballots on November 6, 2018. (C.M. Guerrero/Miami Herald/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Security systems for mail-in ballots need additional funding and information technology assistance to be ready for the upcoming November election, security experts told Congress Tuesday.

They warned that foreign adversaries and other hackers will try to influence the election unless they can be blocked by the government.

Their warnings raised concern among members of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, who said they were worried about repeating the kind of manipulation traced to Russians in 2016 as they sought to sway the election in their favor.

Donald Trump was one of the candidates favored by a Russian social media campaign and attempted hacking of election computers, according to Homeland Security Department officials.

“It is absolutely critical that we make the current system work,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. “Any finagling with that system puts the process in jeopardy.”

The House approved the Election Security Act earlier this year to increase funding for states to protect their elections against foreign interference. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic relief Heroes Act would give states $3.6 billion to help them modify their election procedures to respond to the emergency.

Plans for a dramatic increase in mail-in ballots has been the primary response. Other procedures being considered would move polling places to large forums to allow social distancing, such as stadiums or fairgrounds.

Thompson, the Homeland Security Committee chairman, lamented that, “Both bills are languishing in the Senate.”

Trump has cautioned that mail-in ballots could be more susceptible to voter fraud than ballots cast at traditional polling places.

“The good news is that many of these issues can be easily fixed by Election Day,” said David Levine, who oversees election integrity issues for the national security advocacy group Alliance for Securing Democracy. “The bad news is that many local election offices are unable to make these fixes quickly because they lack the necessary resources or IT support.”

Continuing dangers include election officials who use common computer passwords or who are deceived by phishing attacks from hackers trying to inject malware, Levine said.

He mentioned the District of Columbia’s June 2 primary election as an example of how to do things wrong during an election.

The D.C. Board of Elections allowed some voters who did not receive the absentee ballots they requested to vote by email.

Levine told the subcommittee on cybersecurity, infrastructure protection and innovation the incident serves as an example of why election security measures “must be part of the design and not introduced after the fact.”

“While the effort was well-intentioned, it put the election results at risk because there is no way either for those voters to verify that their votes were recorded accurately, nor is there a way to ensure that those votes were not altered in transmission by bad actors,” Levine said.

However, Amber McReynolds, chief executive of the public policy group National Vote at Home Institute, tried to reassure lawmakers mail-in ballots could be made secure with proper preparation.

“Voting by mail is proven, time-tested and secure and dates all the way back to the Civil War,” she said.

One secure method for votes-by-mail uses a ballot tracking system that can be set up quickly by states, McReynolds said.

The congressional hearing follows by one week a suggestion by Trump to delay the date for the election to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The suggestion met with quick criticism from Democrats, such as Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who chairs the subcommittee on cybersecurity, infrastructure protection and innovation.

“For the record, the president does not have the power to move the date of the election from November,” Richmond said.

He agreed there were fraud risks for the election but cited a recent Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency report that says mail-in ballots but could be made safe.

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