State election officials express frustration after meeting feds

Posted at 1:49 PM, Jul 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-09 13:49:26-04

State election officials on Saturday had one of their first opportunities to meet as a group with federal officials looking to do more to secure elections from potential cyberthreats, and many left with one word on their lips: disappointing.

The National Association of Secretaries of State are gathered here for their annual conference, meeting Saturday morning with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and the independent Election Assistance Commission to discuss the security of election infrastructure. 

Words used by the departing secretaries and their staffs, however, included "frustrating" and "disappointing."

In the waning days of the Obama administration, DHS designated election systems as critical infrastructure -- a move that allows DHS to offer more concerted assistance to help secure those systems from cyber and other threats. But that move has also generated pushback on the state level, where secretaries of both parties fiercely guard their states' rights to manage voting. 

"Let's just say we need better lines of communication," said Vermont's Jim Condos, a Democrat.

"Disappointing," said California's Alex Padilla, also a Democrat. Some of the generic quality of the conversation would have been understandable in February, he said, but "it's July now."

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, also said he was "disappointed" by the closed-door briefing. The federal officials "weren't prepared to answer our questions," he said.

Attendees of the session said the presentation from the federal officials was largely about what it means for election systems to be designated as critical infrastructure, discussing that at high level without broaching much beyond what has already been testified to publicly, they said. 

Not all the feedback was negative. Outgoing NASS President Denise Merrill, the Democratic secretary of state of Connecticut, attributed a lot of the frustration with "growing pains" as states and the federal government navigate their relationship.

"We're making progress, and I think we're all learning more about how all these DHS critical infrastructure sectors work," she said.

But Merrill still noted the biggest point of contention for the secretaries: how they find out about attempts to attack their states.

"The biggest issue still is how are these risks going to be communicated to us," she said. "We're annoyed we keep reading things in the paper."

States continued to express particular frustration with DHS's public declaration that 21 states' election-related systems were targeted -- although mostly not breached -- by Russian-linked hackers in the 2016 election.

State officials here say they still do not have full clarity on which of their states were in the group of 21 and criticized the way DHS released the information, spreading concern publicly. DHS has said they notified "owners" of those systems, but in some cases those individuals might not have been state election administrators.

"Homeland Security has told us they notified the affected local governments, but they did not for a number of months notify the secretaries of states," said Colorado Secretary of State Wayne W. Williams, a Republican. "That makes it hard for secretaries of state to respond, particularly when we receive inquiries from the media saying, '21 states were breached, were you one of them?'"

Part of the meeting was about understanding each others' processes.

"They need to learn the electoral process better before they start telling us what we should be doing," Tennessee's Hargett said. "Hopefully this can be a reboot and maybe they can have a better understanding of how they can help us in the future"

The Department of Homeland Security called the meeting "productive" and said it will take the conversation to heart as they expand their work with state elections officials.

"We had a productive dialogue and they were able to provide feedback, and the department is going to take that feedback and work to address it," said acting Deputy Undersecretary Robert Kolasky, who gave a presentation Saturday.

More tension over voting integrity commission

Separately, conference attendees have also been discussing the recent request voter information by the White House's voting integrity commission, led by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach was not in attendance at the conference.

Almost all the states have refused to provide certain types of voter information to the panel, according to a CNN inquiry of all 50 states.

A bipartisan group of secretaries are working behind-the-scenes to develop a resolution that can be passed by the end of the conference pushing back on President Donald Trump's statements declaring voter fraud a mass problem, which was the impetus for creating the White House commission in May. A similar effort fell short at the group's last gathering.

Commission member Matt Dunlap, the Democratic secretary of state of Maine, said the response to Kobach's letter has shown at the very least how sensitive the public is about their personal information.

"I think the bright line is, and we've learned in high relief, is that a history of how someone has participated in elections -- not how they voted, but whether or not they voted -- is something, along with some of their identifying information, that we wouldn't release anyway, nonetheless really upsets people," Dunlap said. "And I think that's a pretty clear message that all of us have gotten. ... I see my role on the commission is to try to help make things better and to try to instill greater public confidence, not erode it. So that's got to be a critical message for all of us."