After Mueller Report, state and local election officials talk cybersecurity

4 weeks 1 day 20 hours ago Sunday, May 19 2019 May 19, 2019 Sunday, May 19, 2019 6:05:00 PM CDT May 19, 2019 in News
By: Daniel Perreault, KOMU 8 Reporter

COLUMBIA - Following the release of the Mueller report, Missouri election officials say keeping the state's elections secure is a top priority. 

"We expect whether or not we see evidence of it or not that outside powers such as Russia and North Korea or China or Iran will try and mess with our elections," Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said. "We are going to assume they are trying to do that, because we'd rather make that assumption and be wrong than assume, they aren't and be wrong."

Missouri's election system was not targeted as part of the "sweeping and systematic fashion" in which Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, according to Robert Mueller's report. 

While the issue of election security is nothing new, the idea that other countries can interfere is.

"We've always known that people would try to cheat, but the idea of nation states and the resources that they can apply to it, is a change of scale," Ashcroft said. 

It's also a priority for Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon.

"Cybersecurity is one of the elements that I consider to be most important in making sure that our office is as protected as possible, that our voters are as protected as possible," Lennon said.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the federal government has increased funding for election security. In July 2018, Missouri received $7.25 million to improve election security as part of the Help America Vote Act.

"We are going to put as much of that money out to the local election authorities as we can to make sure that their systems are secure," Ashcroft said. "You always have to triage, where do we have the biggest problem or where are we most concerned, where do we see the most bang for our buck."

Ashcroft said his office is still in the process of distributing the funds to different election jurisdictions.

Lennon said it is not just physical security measures that worry her.

"The biggest threat that we have most of the time is voter confidence and making sure that they think that their vote is going to count and that it is going to count accurately," she said. 

Since taking office in 2017, Ashcroft has testified before Congress in Washington. He told members of Congress that in Missouri, election fraud posses a more significant threat than cybersecurity.

"What I was saying there is that we know we have had elections that were changed by voter fraud," he said. "That's not to say that we shouldn't worry about cybersecurity, but what we have to make sure we do is look at every aspect of elections."

Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, the state hosted a cybersecurity conference with federal, state, and local election officials.

"We got together with election officials from across the country to talk about what we could do and not in kind of academic terms of white papers that people don't understand, but to make sure people actually had lists where they could go back and say, 'are you doing this, make sure you consider this,'" Ashcroft said. "So, it was actionable intelligence and direct guidance that they can use."

Lennon said she feels cooperation between election officials on different levels is critical.

"I think making sure that we have partners in state and federal agencies to make sure that we are getting the resources we need at the local level is important," she said.

In 2017, a study by the Center for American Progress gave Missouri's election system a D grade. Among their main concerns was that Missouri allows some members of the military stationed overseas to vote electronically.

"We had people at forward-deployed bases, we had people out at sea, by the time they got their ballot the election was over," Ashcroft said. "I don't think it is a problem to make sure our military men and women who are protecting our rights across the world have the right to vote."

The study also cited Missouri for not providing information on certain parts of the election process. Something Ashcroft said the state does not do for security reasons.

"When it comes to what we do on a security standpoint, we don't release that and say here, here is how we protect your elections, use this as a path to try to attack them," he said.

As nations increase their attempts to mess with American elections, Ashcroft said it is crucial voters are confident in the election system.

"What we want to make sure is not only are we continuing to make sure that outside powers or registrations change no votes, we also want people to have confidence," he said. "If people lose confidence in the election or that it is well run, then they won't participate, and that loss of wisdom is a loss to all of us."

Ashcroft said he hopes the dialogue on election security continues among election officials. He is hopeful there will be another summit in a different state before the 2020 Presidential election.

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