White House Considers Steps To Protect Voting Systems From Hackers

Sep 1, 2016
Originally published on September 1, 2016 6:33 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Obama administration is weighing steps to protect the nation's voting systems from hackers. That comes with word this month that at least two state voter databases in Arizona and Illinois may have been compromised. One step the administration is considering is declaring election systems part of the national critical infrastructure. But as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, not everyone thinks that's a good idea.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: There are some 9,000 state and local governments that run elections. The federal government is not involved. Still, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says there is a vital national interest in protecting the election process, and therefore...

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JEH JOHNSON: We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process is critical infrastructure like the financial sector, like the power grid.

NAYLOR: The federal government has designated 16 such critical infrastructures which also include food production and transportation. It means they are considered vital to national security, economic security or public health and that the federal government will work with the owners and operators to help strengthen them from physical or cyber threats.

In the case of voting systems, any federal involvement would likely be an advisory role, says former Homeland Security official Bruce McConnell.

BRUCE MCCONNELL: This just puts them in the position to give advice and assistance. It doesn't give DHS any regulatory authority.

NAYLOR: But there is some skepticism about Washington's motives when it comes to the election system. Brian Kemp is Georgia's secretary of state.

BRIAN KEMP: I think it would give the opportunity for the federal government to stick its nose under the tent, if you will, of state election systems. So that's a big concern that I have.

NAYLOR: Kemp, a Republican, says he's open to sharing information with other states and Washington to better secure election systems but that running elections should remain a local responsibility.

KEMP: The Constitution was set up to give the states this power. There's value in having the states doing that because you have multiple systems and multiple jurisdictions. And you know, elections is not a one-size-fits-all operation that I believe to be run by the federal government.

NAYLOR: California's Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, says he understands that concern but does see value in having some federal input.

ALEX PADILLA: I think there's a lot to be gained here. Nothing is more critical for maintaining the integrity of our democracy than the public's confidence in our voting systems and in the election results. So if the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice or any other federal agencies can help us fulfill that, I certainly welcome the dialogue.

NAYLOR: Whether or not the nation's voting systems are critical infrastructure, Joe Hall with the Center for Democracy and Technology says they certainly are neglected infrastructure.

JOE HALL: The voting systems out there in general are 10- to 15-, 20-year-old computer systems, which means they can't really protect themselves in the modern sort of risk and threat environment that they're in right now. And because of that, they are quite vulnerable.

NAYLOR: The positive side is that few voting machines connect directly to the internet, but there are other ways of hacking them. It's unclear when any designation of voting systems as critical infrastructure might occur. The White House says an active discussion is underway. But a Homeland Security official says such a designation would not take place before this upcoming election. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.