U.S. Election Security Experts Testify From Illinois, A Top Target Of Russia's 2016 Meddling

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson held a hearing with Vice Chairwoman Lauren Underwood in Gurnee, Illinois on election security. (Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty)

In an effort to broaden the public’s understanding of the challenges faced by U.S. officials ahead of the 2020 election, Democratic lawmakers travelled to Gurnee, Illinois, on Tuesday to hear testimony from leading U.S. election and cybersecurity officials. The meeting also served as an opportunity for the American Democrats to continue their push for legislation they say is pivotal to staving off additional election-meddling efforts by foreign adversaries such as Russia.

Russian hackers are said to have compromised the personal information of some 76,000 Illinois voters in 2016, exfiltrating the data from the Illinois Board of Elections’ website. A U.S. Senate Intelligence Report published this July noted that while the hackers were “in a position to delete or change voter data,” no evidence of altered records was found.

Illinois has invested over $19 million in federal grants to strengthen its systems since the breach, with half going toward the creation of the Illinois Cyber Navigator Program. The program is charged with establishing statewide security protocols in order to detect and defend against future attacks on its elections, facilitate upgrades to outdated systems, and enhance intelligence sharing between local, state and federal authorities in the U.S.

After a year of opposing any additional funding, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved an additional $370 million in grants last month to help states beef up their election systems. (This is in addition to the $563 appropriated in 2018, from which Illinois’ $19 million was drawn.) However, critics say the amount falls far short of what’s necessary for comprehensive improvements. House Democrats approved $888 million this year, but the measure was blocked by U.S. Senate Republican leaders.

Senior American intelligence officials remain adamant that U.S. election systems will be targeted by foreign actors in the upcoming election. “We assess that foreign actors will view the 2020 US elections as an opportunity to advance their interests,” Trump’s former director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said earlier this year. FBI Director Chris Wray concurred, saying the bureau has already seen indications that Russia will continue its efforts to interfere in the upcoming election.

“Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election,” North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, said this month. Still, a C-SPAN/Ipsos poll released just days ago found that only six in 10 Americans believe foreign governments pose a threat to U.S. elections. (Seventy-seven per cent of Democrats perceived a threat, as opposed to 58 per cent of Republicans.)

Matt Masterson, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) senior adviser on election security, said in Illinois on Tuesday that the funding had granted DHS the ability to deploy intrusion-detection capabilities across all 50 states. “In 2018 and 2019, we deployed a remote penetration testing capability ... allowing us to identify risks and vulnerabilities in election systems without having to deploy teams into local election offices,” he said.

A report by the Brennan Centre for Justice this year found dozens of jurisdictions in which ageing voting equipment could not be replaced because, officials said, they could not afford to do so. As many as 45 states are currently using voting equipment that is no longer manufactured, according to the report. Election officials in 40 U.S. states said they were still using machines that more than a decade old. One former elections director in South Carolina told the Centre that his county was “lucky to be able to get spare parts” for machines when they broke down.

“Too often, well-intentioned officials in Washington do not have a complete understanding of how the federal government can best assist state and local officials in their mission,” Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Bennie G. Thompson said Tuesday, calling election security a “national security issue that transcends party politics and reaches to the heart of our democracy.”

Increase intelligence sharing has become a top recourse in response to election threats. Steve Sandvoss, executive director of the Illinois Board of Elections, noted his agency’s collaboration with the U.S. Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Centre (STIC), a fusion centre of state authorities, the FBI, DHS and other federal agencies. “Our goal is to consolidate numerous information sources and feedback from election authorities and distill it into the most valuable, actionable information as possible,” he said.

Elizabeth Howard, counsel for the Brennan Centre’s Democracy Program, told lawmakers Tuesday that while “well-resourced, hostile nation-states” may be a new threat to elections, “the tools and tactics they use are not.”

“Cybersecurity professionals are very familiar with these threats, including distributed denial-of-service attacks, hacking, and insider threats. Considering this, it’s no surprise there is widespread agreement on the appropriate countermeasures and policies that are needed to ensure our election systems can withstand attacks,” she said.

“In short, we know what we need to do to harden our infrastructure, but we’re lacking in leadership and funding.”

You can watch the entire hearing, “Preparing for 2020: How Illinois is Securing Elections, on YouTube.

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