With the midterm congressional primaries about to hit full swing, the Department of Homeland Security is playing catch-up in helping to ensure that state election systems are secure against cybertampering by the Russians or others bent on mischief.
The department said it has completed on-site risk assessments of election systems in nine of 17 states that have formally requested them so far; the results are not public. Nebraska and Iowa are among the nine. The department has pledged to complete the reviews by November for every state that asks.
The security reviews are designed to identify any weaknesses that could be exploited by hackers; such examinations are routinely conducted in the private sector. They are just one tool, although an important one, in ensuring a computer network has a robust defense.
Homeland Security officials attribute the backlog to increased demand for such reviews since the 2016 presidential election and say they are devoting more money and shifting resources to reduce wait times. The reviews typically take two weeks each.
“Elections remain a top priority,” said Matt Masterson, the department’s senior adviser for cybersecurity.
Among those still waiting for Homeland Security to conduct a risk assessment is Indiana, one of four states with primaries on Tuesday. Its ballot includes several hotly contested races, including a Republican primary for U.S. Senate.
But Indiana, like other states, has some defenses against hackers. It has used a private vendor to conduct a risk assessment, and is also one of 33 states and 32 local election offices that are receiving remote cyber-scanning services from Homeland Security to identify vulnerabilities in their networks.
Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson said she is confident state officials have done what they can to safeguard Tuesday’s voting, but acknowledged: “I’ll probably be chewing my fingernails during the entire day on Election Day.”
The concerns aren’t just theoretical. The nation’s intelligence chiefs warned earlier this year that Russia remains interested in disrupting U.S. elections after a multipronged effort to interfere in 2016. That included attempts to hack into the election systems of 21 states.
There is no indication Russian hackers succeeded in manipulating any votes, but U.S. security agencies say they did manage to breach the voter rolls in Illinois. That state and Texas are the only two to hold statewide primaries so far this year, and neither reported any intrusions into their election systems.
Homeland Security designated elections systems critical infrastructure just months after the 2016 White House election, adding them to a list that includes chemical plants, dams and nuclear reactors.
At least 28 states said they want Homeland Security to conduct the risk assessments, according to a 50-state survey of state election officials by The Associated Press.
Some states prefer to do the security checks on their own, with some, such as New Hampshire, expressing concern about federal overreach in a country where elections are run by state and local governments.
Cybersecurity experts say that as long as the process is robust, it should not matter who conducts the risk assessments.
”You could do this right in a number of different ways,” said Mike Garcia, lead author of a handbook for state and local election officials released recently by the nonprofit Center for Internet Security. “What matters is that you are doing it right.”
The delays have caught the attention of Congress, including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which recommended in March that Homeland Security expand capacity to reduce wait times.
”DHS and the FBI have made great strides, but they must do more,” committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said at the time.
Of the other states holding primaries on Tuesday, the traditional battlegrounds of North Carolina and Ohio, said they had received on-site reviews by Homeland Security. The fourth state, West Virginia, declined to say when asked by the AP.
The vast majority of primaries around the U.S. are in May and June.
World-Herald staff writer Emily Nitcher contributed to this report.