On Friday, President Trump met with his national security advisers to discuss election security leading up to the November midterms. It was the first such meeting he has held on the issue in spite of the intelligence community’s stance that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election via cyber warfare.
The meeting lasted less than an hour and did not produce any new directives to address the threat Russia poses in either November or 2020. Instead, the meeting covered actions federal agencies have taken to assist states in election security and in the investigation of the Russians who attacked our electoral process. A administration official, speaking anonymously, called the meeting “good” and stated that the administration is doing “good work”.
The White House issued a statement saying, “The president has made it clear that his administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections from any nation state or other malicious actors. The Trump Administration will continue to provide the support necessary to the owners of elections systems — State and local governments — to secure their elections.”
But, after the DOJ announced that Russian military officers hacked into a state election board website and stole information of 500,000 voters, Democrats were critical of the administration’s lack of prioritizing election security. At least three congressional candidates have already been targeted in the months before the midterms and the administration is seen as not reacting sufficiently, the Washington Post reports.
Suzanne Spaulding, a former senior Homeland Security official, said, “It’s great that they’re having an NSC meeting today, but it’s like the pop-up summits with Putin and [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un, without all the prep work being done to prepare options and tee up issues for more senior consideration.”
“You want to make sure that as you’re preparing a plan for countering Russian interference that you bring to bear all the resources, capabilities and authorities you have across the government,” Spaulding said. “You don’t get that if each department and agency is just trying to operate within their own little sphere.”
With little or no leadership from the president who frequently calls the investigation a “witch hunt”, federal agencies have taken it upon themselves to address the threat. The Department of Homeland Security is leading the way by focusing on election infrastructure and sharing information via a task force intended to heighten state election security. The FBI, under Director Christopher Wray, has set up a task force to address foreign influence operations and is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security and foreign allies. The National Security Agency has created a group composed of cyber experts to detect and fight the Russian hackers who are even now targeting state elections and more. The Department of Justice, after announcing 12 additional indictments of Russian military officers accused of hacking the DNC, has announced a program to address the Russian disinformation programs and hacking efforts.
The Washington Post reports that these efforts are not enough, according to various experts.
The DHS has carried out “very constructive” work with state and local election officials, said David Becker, a former Justice Department official who now heads the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research. “They’re doing everything they can to give state and local election officials the tools to combat that threat.”
But, he said, that’s not enough.
“It’s difficult for them to see our president standing next to the man who ordered that attack [against U.S. democracy] and not hold the Russians accountable,” he said. “Yes, they need to detect and prevent attacks and mitigate any negative impacts, but it’s also important to deter attacks in the first place. That’s where we’re missing leadership from the White House.”
The $380 million funding approved by Congress in March for improving election technology is seen as insufficient to provide states assistance in bolstering election systems. Experts warn that the funding is not enough to replace vulnerable voting machines and will barely enable states to train election officials and fix the voter databases targeted by Russian hackers. A Princeton professor demonstrated that at least some voting machines can be successfully attacked in minutes and the recent indictments from Mueller that allege Russian hackers infiltrated a company that supplies software for voting machines brings home the point of how vulnerable US election infrastructure is.
Politico reports that 30 states rely either totally or partially on paperless, touchscreen voting machines which have long been considered a vulnerability in election infrastructure. Five states rely solely on paperless machines – Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, and South Carolina.
According to a Politico survey of the nation’s election agencies, only 14 states will use their portion of the congressional funding offered to replace voting machines by the next presidential election in 2020.
At least six other states have paid for new voting equipment with other money. But 22 states either have decided not to upgrade their machines or are unsure of their plans — with some saying they would need much more federal aid to swap out their equipment.
POLITICO has previously reported that states expected to have few security upgrades in place before November, when voters will decide whether to keep Trump’s Republican allies in charge of Congress. Of the 42 states that described aspects of their plans to POLITICO, none indicated they would have new voting machines purchased with federal funding in place this year.
The states are struggling to address the threats amid budgetary limitations and state election officials find themselves on the front lines of facing Russian hackers with little assistance from the federal government or leadership from the White House. Voting security experts believe the current voluntary guidelines should be replaced with minimum standards, Politico reports.
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, the new president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, recently said both Congress and Trump need to do more. He urged Congress to create a regular election security grant program, and he said he hasn’t seen much leadership on the issue from the president, who has denounced the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt.”
“Unfortunately, the person at the top has not been supportive and has sent mixed messages, and that makes it difficult on us as secretaries,” Condos said in a July 20 interview on C-SPAN.
With this one time allotment of funding, state and local election officials must choose how best to spend that money so that the integrity of our election system is preserved and defended from foreign entities who are happy to exploit our weaknesses.