How To Protect The Next Election From Hacking The federal government has declared elections to be part of the country's critical infrastructure. That has election officials, who are very protective of how they do things now, extremely nervous.

How To Protect The Next Election From Hacking

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FBI director James Comey has warned that Russia will try once again to influence U.S. elections, possibly even next year. To prepare, the federal government has declared elections to be a part of the nation's critical infrastructure that demands special attention. Now election officials are nervous about what exactly that might mean. Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: First, a reminder of just what did happen in last year's election. Intelligence officials say 20 states had their election systems scanned and targeted by Russian hackers. Two - Arizona in Illinois - had their voter registration systems infiltrated, although no records were deleted or changed. One thing did not happen.


DENISE MERRILL: The voting process itself was not hacked, manipulated or rigged in any way.

FESSLER: Denise Merrill is Connecticut's secretary of state and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. She spoke yesterday before the U.S. Election Assistance Commission about what it means to be declared critical infrastructure. She and many local officials worry that working with the feds will jeopardize the best protection the nation already has against outside manipulation of elections.


MERRILL: Because our system is highly decentralized, there is no way to disrupt the voting process in any large scale meaningful way through cyberattacks because there's no national system to attack.

FESSLER: And Neil Jenkins of the Department of Homeland Security agreed. Having thousands of local election offices, each with their own systems, makes hacking votes almost impossible. But he said states are increasingly putting election data online, things like voter registration lists and preliminary vote counts. And that increases the risk that an election can be disrupted. He said Homeland Security is there not to dictate but to help.


NEIL JENKINS: The way we work with critical infrastructure is not through regulation, it's through voluntary partnerships, sharing of information, listening to the community, determining what they want and then working with them to provide that information.

FESSLER: He said election officials will now have more access to classified information about potential threats and that DHS can provide services like sending in penetration teams to try to break into voting systems to see if they're secure. Election officials say many of them are already doing this, but they welcome the extra help. Although Lance Gough, who runs the Chicago Board of Elections, said when word got out last year that they planned to use some DHS security software, there was an uproar.


LANCE GOUGH: People on the Republican Party saying that Democrats are trying to take over the election mechanism, and then vice versa, the Democrats said that the Republicans were trying to take over.

FESSLER: Election officials say what they really need is more money for new equipment. And they're not very confident that DHS understands how elections work. When asked by Commissioner Christy McCormick...


CHRISTY MCCORMICK: What do you feel are the greatest areas of risk for security in elections?

FESSLER: ...The answer wasn't a Russian hacker.


RICKY HATCH: I think the largest risk, to be honest, is the risk of public perception and confidence.

FESSLER: Ricky Hatch runs elections in Weber County, Utah. He said he was mostly concerned about the impact of candidates and others talking so much about elections being hacked when the chances are so low.


HATCH: We need to not only make sure that our elections are secure, but we need make sure that the public understands that they're secure.

FESSLER: Which will likely be a topic of debate when election officials meet soon with Homeland Security behind closed doors to discuss what to do next. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.


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