State and Federal Election Security Collaboration for Upcoming Midterm Elections

As states begin preparing their election systems for the upcoming midterm elections, the federal government is offering support and guidance to state and local election officials to better respond to threats similar to those encountered during the 2016 election cycle.

In a June 12 U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee election security hearing, committee members questioned the role of the federal government in ensuring election systems— and the over 10,000 officials nationwide who administer them— are prepared for what some are predicting to be a historic midterm election. While state and local governments take a lead role in conducting their elections, as noted by Sen. Chuck Grassley, they must seek help from, and cooperate with, federal law enforcement agencies capable of providing technical expertise and funding to maintain election security.

Matthew Masterson, a cybersecurity specialist at the Department of Homeland Security, said the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) is assisting states in directing their shares of the $382 million in grants provided by the Help America Vote Security Fund.

“We recognize that securing our nation’s systems is a shared responsibility, and we are leveraging partnerships to advance that mission,” Masterson said, telling senators that the technical challenges election systems face are similar to those in other areas. For example, the NPPD provides guidance concerning software updates, maintenance, and configuration management. Some senators, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Kamala Harris, questioned the sufficiency of the grant funding and how it would be allocated across the broad variety of constituencies— either by population, size, or need.

Masterson also emphasized the need for a streamlined and clearly defined communications process, highlighting the collaboration among Secretaries of State that the DHS has been fostering through the National Association of Secretaries of State. The NPPD also offers vulnerability and risk assessments so that states may work to mitigate their most serious risk factors, he said.

Adam Hickey, deputy attorney general in the National Security division of the Department of Justice, said the DOJ is also working to identify foreign election security threats, and will publicize a report commissioned by Attorney General Jeff Sessions sometime in July.

 “Combating foreign influence operations requires a ‘whole of society’ approach that relies on coordinated actions by federal, state, and local government agencies’ support from the private sector, and the active engagement of an informed public,” Hickey said.

Also discussed was S.2261, the Secure Elections Act, which would set out specific rules and procedures for information sharing between levels of government and agencies and create an advisory panel to develop guidelines and recommend best practices. That bill is currently in the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.

Sen. Dick Durbin pointed out that time to act is running out, with the election just 19 weeks away.