election security

DHS secretary reaffirms support for voting systems’ critical infrastructure designation

After the leak of a document describing Russian cyber hacks on an election system software vendor and spear-phishing attempts against local election officials in the lead-up to the November 2016 presidential election, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly reiterated his position on voting systems being considered  critical infrastructure.

“I don’t believe we should” back off on the critical infrastructure designation, he told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on June 6, adding that he plans to meet with state officials next week to further discuss how DHS can help them secure their election systems.

Former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson made the formal designation Jan. 6 in response to earlier allegations of Russian hacking aimed at state election and voter data systems. The designation guarantees states priority in DHS assistance requests and greater access to information on cyber vulnerabilities. Johnson and Kelly have both stressed that such federal assistance is voluntary.

Committee ranking member Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) added her support for maintaining the critical infrastructure designation, reasoning that “it would be distressing if the United States would then pull back from the ability to help states protect these voter files, and [DHS is] going to be in the best position to do that.”

While condemning the leak, McCaskill said, “we now have, in the public domain, verified information that the Russians made an aggressive attempt to access not only a vendor of voter software in this country, but also a number of states -- the voter file databases -- in the month prior to our election.”

“I don’t think enough attention has been given to something that is [DHS’s] responsibility … critical infrastructure, including the election systems.”

McCaskill asked Kelly directly what role DHS would play in the investigation of “the attempts to penetrate the voter files in this country immediately before the election by the Russian government.”

While he declined to publicly “confirm or deny” anything in the leaked document, Kelly testified that he shares McCaskill’s concerns about “the sanctity of our voting process,” and he confirmed that DHS will participate in an investigation of the election hacking described in the documents.

“Clearly, it should be an interagency investigation, and that is taking place,” Kelly said. “DHS will be a part of that.… We are involved.”

This article was first posted to FCW, a sister site to GCN.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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