March 6, 2018

What is the role of DHS in protecting our elections?

Jacob Sztraicher

The first primary in the United States’ 2018 election cycle happens today in the state of Texas. The beginning of primary season comes amid increased interest in protecting U.S. elections from hacking, social engineering, and presidential allegations of voter fraud in the 2016 election. Recent disagreements over which states were specifically targeted by hacking attempts during 2016 has intensified scrutiny of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the federal agency charged with securing critical infrastructure.

Securing our elections is a new mandate for a relatively new agency (DHS was created under President George W. Bush). DHS’ umbrella covers FEMA, cybersecurity (NPPD), TSA, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, the Secret Service, and even the U.S. Coast Guard. Traditionally, U.S. elections are overseen by secretaries of state and local administrators in electoral districts. The move to designate elections as “critical infrastructure” which makes DHS resources more available to states was initially met with opposition from state and local officials. Now that elections are considered critical, DHS is being criticized over its perceived inaction to protect election infrastructure before it is targeted or attacked during this election cycle. Despite widely reported U.S. election hacking attempts in 2016, states are still underprepared to ensure elections will not be susceptible to the same attacks. States still do not necessarily have the funding to replace vulnerable voting machines or to improve their existing infrastructure. DHS is attempting to provide free cybersecurity risk assessments to states, and they appear to be on track to provide those assessments before April, despite a large backlog reported just a few months ago.

Assistant Secretary Jeanette Manfra, who serves as the chief cybersecurity official at DHS, said recently that there is no “credible threat or targeting of election infrastructure,” yet. Anticipating this risk, enhancing communications between federal agencies and state and local election officials has become a priority for the agency. In February, senior officials from DHS, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED), and state and local election officials convened a meeting of the Government Coordinating Council to discuss commitments to secure U.S. elections. DHS, in partnership with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI, also continues to brief officials from all 50 states on foreign adversaries’ strategy to influence our elections.

In the next several weeks we will learn more about DHS efforts to help protect election systems from cyberattack as the Senate considers a new DHS authorization bill. Prime Policy Group will continue to keep you apprised of developments throughout the 2018 election season.

Jacob Sztraicher

Jacob Sztraicher is a member of the Prime Policy Group Research Team. He assists on data projects and a variety of other client work.