voting (Lutsina Tatiana/Shutterstock.com)

Midterm election infrastructure deemed meddle-free, but states seek equipment funding

The federal government has determined there is no evidence that foreign interference in the 2018 midterm election "had a material impact on the integrity or security of election infrastructure or political [and] campaign infrastructure," the Justice Department announced.

DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security said Feb. 5 that they have submitted a classified report to President Donald Trump in accordance with an executive order issued last year to root out and investigate foreign interference targeting American elections or campaigns.

The conclusions represent the second half of an interagency process created late last year to assess whether foreign governments made any efforts to hack into voting machines and election systems or alter voter behavior through covert influence campaigns on social platforms and other media.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence made an initial assessment to the president shortly before Christmas, when Director Dan Coats said there was "no intelligence reporting that indicates any compromise" of election infrastructure that would have changed vote totals. The report did find that Russia, China and Iran "conducted influence activities and messaging campaigns targeted at the United States to promote their strategic interests," but ODNI did not assess whether those campaigns had any effect on the results 2018 congressional elections.

The joint findings broadly track with what DHS, DOJ and ODNI had publicly reported in the weeks and months leading up to Election Day. In 2016, officials had enough evidence to attribute a sophisticated cyber campaign, focused on penetrating voting and election systems and spreading disinformation online, to Russia. But multiple DHS and intelligence officials told reporters that they had observed far lower levels of suspicious or malicious activity in the 2018 cycle.

Steven Chabinsky, former deputy assistant director of the FBI's Cyber Division, told FCW, GCN's sibling site, that while he is skeptical the government has put in place an effective strategy to deter nation-state adversaries in cyberspace, the findings on 2018 represent a victory on one critical front: bolstering the public's confidence in the election system.

"There was a huge effort that DHS engaged in to try to enhance election security before [2018] and even after all that there were a lot of questions," Chabinsky said on the sidelines of an event hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "I think that's helpful for voter confidence. We have such low voting rates in our country anyway that if you feel the election system itself isn't going to have your vote count, that's really a remarkable problem for democracy, so to the extent that they found that and that the information is accurate, that's a big win for everyone."

State election officials, meanwhile,  want Congress to deliver more funding for election security with fewer strings attached.

At the Feb. 2 National Association for Secretaries of State annual winter conference, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill asked authors of the Secure Elections Act to be open to the idea of block granting federal funds for equipment upgrades "through applications from the states who know our states, our counties and our communities best."

The House Democratic majority is preparing to vote on H.R. 1, a massive campaign and election reform bill with a number of security-related provisions, including requirements for election equipment vendors. The Republican-controlled Senate is working out final details before reintroducing the Secure Elections Act in the next few weeks.

In the past, Jim Condos, Vermont Secretary of State and former NASS president, has argued for annual, mostly unrestricted federal funding to purchase new machines. He said it's important that Congress work out and pass a legislative package this year in order to have equipment in place before the 2020 presidential election.

"If you're going to get money to the states, it doesn't help us to do it in the middle of a presidential election year," said Condos. "We're not going to have time between January and November of next year to do a whole lot of changes, [so] in order for that money to be spent, it really has to be done this year."

Some Republicans in Congress don't want to approve more grant money until they learn more about how states spent the $380 million in leftover Help America Vote Act funds appropriated last year.

States have provided plans for how they intend to spend their portion to the Election Assistance Commission, and Condos said detailed procurement plans were also submitted by many states.

This article is a combination of two pieces that first appeared on FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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