Yesterday, the same day Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly said during a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing he believes “we should help all of the states [and] provide them as much help as we can to make sure their [election] systems are protected in future elections,” noting that protecting the nation’s electoral systems should be a priority under the National Infrastructure Protection Plan, the Committee on House Administration voted on party lines to eliminate the independent Election Assistance Commission (EAC).
The commission in part was created to help states upgrade voting technology and promote critical election-related information sharing. “It is charged with supporting state and local election officials in their efforts to ensure … secure elections [and] accredits testing laboratories and certifies voting systems,” EAC’s website says.
Kelly also said the Trump administration will not reverse his predecessor’s designation of the US election system as “critical national infrastructure.”
“I would argue that … we should keep that in place,” Kelly said.
Trump has also stated that the nation’s electoral systems must be protected from cyber or other forms of hacking.
EAC’s 15-member Technical Guidelines Development Committee will be briefed by DHS officials at its meeting next week.
House Committee on Administration Chairman Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) said following the committee’s approval of the Eliminating the Election Assistance Commission Act (HR 634) that, “The existence of the EAC is not necessary to conduct federal elections and is a waste of taxpayer funds. The EAC was only meant to run temporarily following the 2000 election. Instead, this organization has taken federal resources for a decade and a half. To date, most of its functions have come to a close, and those remaining are easily transferable to the Federal Elections Commission. What taxpayers have been left with is an agency that has outlived its usefulness, mismanaged its resources, and cost taxpayers millions.”
“The EAC does not register voters, it does not conduct recounts, nor does it have any enforcement authority over laws governing voter registration or anything else essential to the operation of our elections,” Harper added. “The agency has no active role in the enforcement or administration of the Voting Rights Act. Even the National Association of Secretaries of State agree that it is past time to end the EAC. Bottom line, the agency does not administer elections and the time to eliminate the EAC has come.”
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, had a much different take. He said today that, “This is a shameful, partisan move by House Republicans that undermines our democracy.”
“The danger of cyber attacks from state and non-state actors is constantly evolving and Americans must be confident that we are addressing this threat,” he said, noting, “Congress cannot abdicate this responsibility while the President sends federal investigators on a wild goose chase to search for millions and millions of non-existent illegal votes. Given public unease regarding Russia’s extensive interference with the recent Presidential election, Congress should be doing more, not less, to ensure the integrity of our electoral systems. Our legitimacy as Congress is only as legitimate as strength and security of the ballot box.”
“Voting is a fundamental right and the foundation of our democracy and it is essential that we maintain confidence in the integrity of the ballot box. Now that constant cyber attacks are our new reality, taking the appropriate security measures is more important than ever. If we are serious about protecting our electoral process, we need to continue to make smart investments like the EAC that will help us reach that goal,” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-LA), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection.
It was early last month when then DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced he’d “determined that election infrastructure in this country should be designated as a subsector of the existing government facilities critical infrastructure sector. Given the vital role elections play in this country, it is clear that certain systems and assets of election infrastructure meet the definition of critical infrastructure, in fact and in law.”
In August, 2016, Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, wrote Johnson “regarding the potential of cyber security vulnerabilities in voting machines and other information technology utilized in election systems across the United States," and urged DHS to designate election systems in the United States as critical infrastructure.
Johnson said, “I have reached this determination so that election infrastructure will, on a more formal and enduring basis, be a priority for cybersecurity assistance and protections that the Department of Homeland Security provides to a range of private and public sector entities.”
The designation enables states, should they request it, to leverage the full scope of cybersecurity services DHS can make available to them.
“By ‘election infrastructure,’” Johnson said, “we mean storage facilities, polling places and centralized vote tabulations locations used to support the election process, and information and communications technology to include voter registration databases, voting machines and other systems to manage the election process and report and display results on behalf of state and local governments."
Johnson said, “Prior to reaching this determination, my staff and I consulted many state and local election officials.” While he said he’s “aware that many of them are opposed to this designation, it is important to stress what this designation does and does not mean. This designation does not mean a federal takeover, regulation, oversight or intrusion concerning elections in this country. This designation does nothing to change the role state and local governments have in administering and running elections.”
Johnson further stated that, “The designation of election infrastructure as critical infrastructure subsector does mean that election infrastructure becomes a priority within the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. It also enables this department to prioritize our cybersecurity assistance to state and local election officials, but only for those who request it. Further, the designation makes clear both domestically and internationally that election infrastructure enjoys all the benefits and protections of critical infrastructure that the US government has to offer. Finally, a designation makes it easier for the federal government to have full and frank discussions with key stakeholders regarding sensitive vulnerability information.”
“Particularly in these times, this designation is simply the right and obvious thing to do,” Johnson stressed.
“The Department of Homeland Security took a positive step by prioritizing the protection of electoral infrastructure under the National Infrastructure Protection Plan,” Thompson said at the time. “In the long term, this will put our electoral systems on a more secure footing and maintain public confidence in our elections. I commend Secretary Johnson for making this important decision. For future elections at all levels, state officials who want to engage with DHS on enhancing the cyber and physical security of their electoral systems will have a federal partner working with them.”
“Entities within these sectors all benefit from this designation and work with us closely on cybersecurity,” Johnson continued. “For example, we have developed joint cybersecurity exercises with numerous companies within the communications, information technology, financial services and energy sectors to improve our incident response capabilities. We have also streamlined access to unclassified and classified information to critical infrastructure owners and operators in partnership with information sharing and analysis organizations. Moreover, many critical infrastructure sectors include assets and systems owned and operated by state and local governments, such as dams, healthcare and public health, and water and wastewater systems.”
“Now more than ever,” Johnson emphasized, “it is important that we offer our assistance to state and local election officials in the cybersecurity of their systems. Election infrastructure is vital to our national interests, and cyber attacks on this country are becoming more sophisticated, and bad cyber actors – ranging from nation states, cyber criminals and hacktivists – are becoming more sophisticated and dangerous.”
“Further,” he stated, “our increasingly digital and connected world has reshaped our lives. It has streamlined everyday tasks and changed the way we communicate. But, just as the continually evolving digital age has improved our quality of life, it has also introduced an array of cyber threats and implications.”