WASHINGTON – Some of the nation’s top cybersecurity leaders are warning state and local election officials of ongoing foreign and domestic national security threats to election systems, urging them to upgrade their defenses ahead of next year’s presidential election.
At separate conferences this month, federal officials warned gatherings of the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors that they must be vigilant in securing their state’s elections systems and building resilience to prevent attacks.
Many election officials, overworked and frightened by personal threats, left the field following President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020. In light of that turnover, national security officials wanted to emphasize that local election officials can use federal resources to build defenses and educate front-line staff.
Although foreign cyberattacks did not disrupt November’s midterm elections, China, Iran, North Korea and Russia remain threats to U.S. election systems, said Cynthia Kaiser, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Cyber Division.
“We have no evidence that a foreign government or other actors compromised election infrastructure or manipulated election results during the 2022 elections,” Kaiser told the secretaries of state. Still, she added, “We need to remain vigilant.”
A year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, national security officials remain concerned Russia may attack critical U.S. infrastructure, including elections, said Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, also known as CISA.
“That has not, thankfully, manifested in any significant way,” Easterly told the secretaries of state. “We’ve not seen anything here, but I’d like to end with the word ‘yet.’”
She emphasized that preparation is key in preventing malicious efforts such as so-called denial of service attacks, which made a handful of state and local government websites unavailable in the weeks before the midterms.
To run safe and secure elections, Easterly recommended that state and local election officials train staff to use multi-factor authentication and to avoid clicking on suspicious email links. She also advised them to replace outdated software and use available federal resources.
There was “sophisticated” activity from foreign governments before and on the day of the 2022 midterms that should be a cause for concern, Kim Wyman, senior election security adviser at CISA, told a nearby conference of the National Association of State Election Directors.
Foreign actors scanned state and local government websites, even though election systems weren’t targeted, she said. While scanning a system doesn’t necessarily compromise it, she said, it could be preparation for a future attack. Local election offices can be “target-rich, cyber-poor” entities, she said, warning that cybersecurity still is not a top priority for many small- and medium-sized jurisdictions.
“The 2024 election for president is fast approaching,” Wyman said, “and this year is really that window of opportunity that you all have to gear up and make strides in reducing your risk.”
In addition to cybersecurity, national security officials stressed the importance of protecting the physical security of voting system storage locations and election offices by, for example, using locks that only a limited number of people can open.
Layering an approach that considers both physical and cybersecurity is challenging, said Bill Ekblad, Minnesota’s election security cyber navigator, who through the secretary of state’s office coordinates an election security strategy with local election offices.
“We continue to see threats compound,” he told Stateline after one session. “We have to take those two concerns with us and be ready for whatever else comes. Everything we heard from our federal partners shores up that perspective that it’s all about readiness, communications, preparing to react and planning, because we can’t predict what the trends will be.”
Presidential primaries are less than a year away for many states, he added, so election officials must prepare now.
The cyber threat
Every day, cyber threats increase, Kaiser told election officials.
She pointed to several incidents in recent years, including Iranian efforts to use influence campaigns, tailored to members of each political party and various other constituencies, to convince Americans that their election system is insecure or otherwise dissuade them from voting.
China has used new tools to target state agencies and services in the United States, including secretary of state and political party servers, Kaiser added.
The Election Assistance Commission, a bipartisan federal agency that guides state and local election administration, will hand out $75 million in election security grants this year. In the four years after 2018, the commission awarded almost a billion dollars in election security grants, said Commissioner Ben Hovland.
The commission is accepting applications to test election equipment for security vulnerabilities. The agency also is developing election technology standards and evaluating electronic poll books, electronic ballot delivery methods, election night reporting systems and online voter registration portals.
Federal officials further encouraged state and local election officials to join a voluntary information-sharing network of more than 3,400 election offices. The network has room to grow, federal officials said – there are 10,000 election offices nationwide.
Boosting physical security
The sustained disinformation campaign that has falsely convinced millions of voters that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election had real consequences last fall: In some places, protesters – sometimes armed – harassed voters turning in their ballots at drop boxes during the midterms. There were protests blocking voters from reaching polling places and violent threats against state and local election officials.
Assessing physical security, conducting de-escalation and active shooter training and coordinating with local law enforcement can help mitigate such threats, federal officials said.
In Weber County, Utah, election workers, especially female staff, faced an onslaught of threats in recent years by people who believed the election was rigged, said Ricky Hatch, the county’s clerk. Hatch reached out to his county’s sheriff to develop a cooperative relationship, so that they can respond to harassment or other disruptions on or around Election Day.
Hatch provides law enforcement officers with his contact information and key election details, such as when drop boxes are accepting ballots, when in-person voting begins, when election officials are transporting ballots to counting centers and how elections are audited. They also review election laws, and procedures for removing people disrupting the voting process.
Not only does the communication establish a strategic relationship between election offices and law enforcement, but it also tells law enforcement officers that the election process is secure, and that the election results are valid and accurate, he said.
“We wanted to tell our partners, ‘Look, if you’re going to defend this process, we want you to have confidence that the process is sound,’” Hatch said.
In North Carolina, law enforcement officers have a guide that fits in their patrol car visors that succinctly outlines state election law and procedures for “maintaining peaceful and orderly elections and ensuring voters can cast a ballot free of intimidation,” said Karen Brinson Bell, the state’s election director. The state also is developing an online training guide for officers.
Federal law enforcement agencies also have stepped up protections for election workers.
The Election Threats Task Force, established in 2021 and run by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI, has a dozen cases of criminal threats to state and local election workers from recent years, said John Keller, principal deputy chief of the department’s Public Integrity Section.
He urged state election directors to “err on the side of reporting” to federal partners any harassment or threats they face.
As national security officials briefed the room of state and local election officials last week, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner stood up to say that he and many of his constituents have lost faith in the FBI and in federal law enforcement. Warner said that could hinder election security efforts.
“We love the FBI, we want to believe in the FBI, but as an election official, we’ve had this recent situation where the credibility of the FBI has been shot,” said Warner, a Republican. “I feel right now we’re being played by the FBI, our own federal agency, in the elections arena when it comes to things like Hunter Biden’s laptop and that sort of thing. I’m not sure we can trust the FBI.”
Kaiser defended the FBI and the “fantastic work” done by “really great people” every day, though she added she “sympathized” with his feelings. It’s important to establish local relationships, she said.
CISA’s Easterly, who was nominated by President Joe Biden and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 2021, also acknowledged that some people may not trust the federal government. She’s been getting into the field, meeting people, understanding gaps in services and getting feedback.
“At the end of the day, it’s really about developing relationships because people trust people,” Easterly said. “I may not always like the feedback, but I will always listen. I will always hear.”