Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday the federal government should consider designating the U.S. election process as “critical infrastructure” to give the voting system greater protection against cyber attacks.
Johnson made the comment in response to a reporter’s question about whether electronic voting machines are vulnerable to hackers in November’s presidential and congressional elections. There are more than 9,000 state, county and city jurisdictions that collect and tally votes throughout the nation.
“We are actively thinking about election cybersecurity right now,” Johnson told reporters at a newsmaker breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
If the voting system was designated as critical infrastructure, it would allow theDepartment of Homeland Security to strengthen protections for the election process and make it a bigger priority, Johnson said. The secretary plays a central role in deciding what public and private sectors should receive the designation.
Critical infrastructure is defined by DHS as “sectors whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety.”
Currently, 16 sectors have been given the designation, including transportation services, energy, nuclear reactors, emergency services, the chemical industry, the defense industrial base, communications, and financial services.
“I do think we should carefully consider whether our election process is critical infrastructure,” he said.
Johnson said DHS plans to contact state and local election officials soon to ensure that the strongest possible precautions are taken to protect the integrity of the voting systems. In the longer term, the government needs to invest more money in protecting the electoral process, Johnson said.
Questions about the security of electronic voting systems have been raised in the wake of last month’s revelations that the Democratic National Committee had been hacked. Johnson said DHS is not yet prepared to attribute that hack to the Russian government or any other specific actor, despite widespread reports that Russia may have been involved. The FBI is investigating the attack.
A spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State said state election officials have not been informed of any specific threat to the voting process.
“NASS is not aware of the existence or the presence of any credible threats reported by any national security agencies,” said Kay Stimson, the group’s communications director.
She said the de-centralized nature of voting in America actually helps thwart hackers. Each state runs its own voting system even for national presidential elections.
“It’s also important to point out that our election systems are not Internet-based systems,” Stimson said. “The are closed systems.”
About 60% of states have post-election audits to help guard against any direct manipulation of the voting process, she said.