Federal security officials warn local election offices to upgrade their websites To help ensure the integrity of the November elections, federal officials are advising local elections offices to upgrade websites — but many are not doing it.

Federal security officials warn local election offices to upgrade their websites

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A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Federal security officials have a simple piece of advice for local election offices - upgrade your websites. They say that step could go a long way in securing the 2024 election, but a majority of them are not doing it. Joining us now to explain is NPR's voting correspondent Miles Parks. So, Miles, last week, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security released a guide basically begging local election officials to update their websites. Why?

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: So this sounds really simple, A, but it's an initiative the federal government has been working on for years to get local election offices to have websites that end in .gov, - .G-O-V. That's instead of the normal .com or .org for websites. You would not think this would matter very much, but it's actually a really important line of defense when you think about the nation's election cybersecurity as well as for fighting misinformation.

The federal government runs the .gov domain, so when you see a website that ends in those three letters, something like johnsoncountyelections.gov, voters know it's legit. When counties or cities use other domains like .com or .net, it's much easier for someone to create a similar domain or email address and potentially either fool voters or other election workers into clicking bad links or believing false information.

MARTÍNEZ: So that is a ridiculously simple and believable ask. I mean, so OK, how much progress has been made on this? Because I know it's been a yearslong campaign.

PARKS: Yeah. It has been a long road. When I reported on this issue four years ago, some states had more than 90% of their counties not using .gov. It has gotten better since then. In 2021, the federal government made it free for counties to make the switch, which is really big for smaller counties that don't have as much money. But the majority of the thousands of election jurisdictions across the country are still not doing it, which does present a real risk.

In this new guide, the federal government agencies talk about an instance in 2020 where someone set up multiple websites, .com websites like votepa.com, votespa.com, seemingly trying to spoof the Pennsylvania statewide elections website. But the state migrated to a .gov address which provided voters and other election workers an easy way to know which website was the real thing.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Miles, when you say presents a real risk, are we talking about people's actual votes at risk here?

PARKS: No. So hypothetically, a spoofed website could mean fake results are posted on election night, for instance. But that's different than actually changing the election results that are certified in the days and weeks after voting ends. One piece of really good news as we look at the landscape - the cybersecurity landscape in 2024 is that the threat to actually manipulating votes is really small because the nation has, by and large, moved away from digital-only voting machines.

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 99% of American voters this year will have a paper record of their vote, which is critical when you talk about preventing against hacking, and also critical when people think about building confidence in the results.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So that's cybersecurity. What about physical security?

PARKS: Right. So FBI Director Chris Wray was asked about threats to democracy last week at an event. He listed foreign influence. He listed voter fraud and voter suppression as things that his agency is thinking about this year. And then he said this.

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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: Increasingly, over the last several years, we've started to see an additional threat, which is threats of violence against everything from government officials of all sorts all the way to election workers.

PARKS: And something I've heard from experts is that those sort of physical threats kind of dovetail with the cybersecurity threats we're talking about. Election workers are more vulnerable when they're under pressure, and they might not be able to prioritize or focus on cybersecurity if they're thinking about their own safety or the safety of their families.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Miles Parks talking about election security. Miles, thanks.

PARKS: Thank you.

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