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The Cybersecurity 202: Mail-in election mandates from Congress could be 'recipe for disaster,' says top state official

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with Tonya Riley

With Tonya Riley


State and local officials are warning that congressional efforts to prepare states for a possible national surge in mail-in voting in November may result in chaos instead of smoother balloting.

They say more federal funding for such an effort, currently being debated as part of the $1.8 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill stuck in Congress, could overwhelm election officials with just seven months left to prepare for a presidential and congressional elections.

Federal mandates for a largely mail-in election could well be a “recipe for disaster,” Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R), president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), told me. Pate worries there may inadequate machinery to process ballots, poorly trained poll workers and a confused voting public.

“You have 50 states with different levels of resources and history of how they do voting,” he said. “I want to caution Congress that there is no one-size plan that fits all of us."

The problem is symptomatic of the divide between Washington, where efforts to protect elections against myriad threats tend to happen in last minute compromises, compared with states and localities where it's common to spend years developing new voting procedures and to lock them in place many months before elections. 

“Congress always seems to operate on a crisis basis, and sometimes that doesn’t work in reality,” Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, who served as NASS president until 2019, told me. 

Some of that rift is partisan as Democratic officials generally support robust help from the federal government while Republican want the cash but not the strings attached to it.

“Still, Republicans in Washington say they are inclined to oppose an effort to include the funding and new rules on how states run their elections in a $2 trillion coronavirus response package, with some casting the effort as part of a Democratic strategy to try to load up the bill with unrelated pet priorities,” as my colleagues Amy Gardner, Elise Viebeck and I report

State and local officials are warning federal efforts may only ramp up mail-in voting by a few percentage points in some states without a robust system in place for it – especially the roughly one-third of states that require an excuse to vote by mail such as illness or travel. 

The percentage of voters who vote at a polling place on Election Day has declined steadily over the past decade, but there are only 16 states where a majority of voters either mailed in their ballots or voted early at a polling site in 2016, according to data from the Election Assistance Commission. That includes Washington, Oregon and Colorado, which rely almost entirely on vote by mail. 

If states are going to surge their mail-in voting programs, federal money needs to come soon, advocates say. But it's far from clear Democrats will succeed in procuring it – especially given Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) historical aversion to major election security bills. 

"They need the money now," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which has put a price tag of roughly $2 billion on voting by mail and other coronavirus-related programs to protect the 2020 election. "If we wait a couple of months, it will be too late. They won't be able to use it effectively or make the changes needed to avoid significant chaos on Election Day."

House Republicans are already balking at a plan from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), which promises $4 billion in funding for state and local election officials but also requires states to offer mail-in voting for all citizens and 15 days of early voting, among other mandates. A group of Democratic senators — Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Chris Coons (Del.) — is pushing up to $2 billion in election security money but with similar mandates. No Republican senators have joined the proposal.

"Election-related provisions have nothing to do with fighting this pandemic or saving the economy," said one senior GOP Senate aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.

Among some state-level Republicans there's strong opposition to federal mandates  – a dynamic that's familiar from congressional Democrats' longstanding efforts to mandate protections against Russian hacking and disinformation following the 2016 election. 

“The best they can do is give us the financial resources to implement what we can in our states to be successful,” Pate said. “I’m pleading with the feds, yes, we need funding but allow states to develop plans that best fit their states."

Even Condos, who championed federal mandates to secure elections against Russian hacking, said he was skeptical a large infusion of federal cash now would be sufficient to surge mail-in voting across the country. 

That means the push to ramp up voting by mail before November probably will look a lot like the three-year effort to improve election security — a patchwork in which some states have made far more progress than others.  

In the meantime, some election officials are trying to expand mail-in voting on their own.

In Ohio, the Republican governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state have endorsed a bill to mail absentee ballot request forms to all eligible voters who did not vote early ahead of the state's primary on March 17, which was delayed.

The chairs of the state Republican and Democratic parties in Indiana wrote a joint letter last week urging election officials to expand access to absentee voting. The mayors of Green Bay, Appleton and Neenah, Wis., are calling for the state's April 7 presidential primary to be held primarily by mail; two are Republicans.

More than three dozen state and local election officials, many of them Republicans, also signed onto a letter to congressional leaders published by the Brennan Center Sunday seeking federal election assistance.

In Iowa, Pate said he's confident he can substantially raise the number of people who vote by mail, partly because the state already has a long history of absentee voting. About 40 percent of Iowa voters cast their ballots by mail in the 2016 general election, a figure Pate said he expects can jump to about 65 percent in 2020. He also issued an order using disaster authorities yesterday to extend the state's early voting period from 29 days to 40 days. 

“In the case of Iowa, we’re going to try to expand on what we already do,” he said, “but some other states are going to have to take another avenue based on where they’re at.”

Pate also estimated the shift will raise his annual budget from about $1.5 million annually to $8 million, a more than fourfold increase that will be tough to pay for without federal help. 

In Vermont, about 30 percent of voters mail in their ballots. Condos told me he thinks he can raise that close to 100 percent, but it will take $3 million or more in federal money. 


PINGED: Highly skilled hackers attempted to break into the World Health Organization by stealing employee emails earlier this month, Raphael Satter, Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing at Reuters report. The unsuccessful effort was a part of a more than a twofold increase in cyberattacks against the global health agency amid the worsening the coronavirus pandemic. 

The attack was first flagged by an independent cybersecurity researcher who noticed a group of hackers had mimicked WHO's internal email system. Neither WHO Chief information Security Officer Flavio Aggio nor independent researchers could say for sure who was behind the attack. But two sources briefed on the matter told Reuters they suspected a shadowy hacking group dubbed DarkHotel, which has been conducting digital espionage campaigns since at least 2007 but isn’t definitely linked to any government’s intelligence services. 

“At times like this, any information about cures or tests or vaccines relating to coronavirus would be priceless and the priority of any intelligence organization of an affected country,” Costin Raiu, head of global research and analysis at Kaspersky, told Reuters.

PATCHED:  Federal agencies are requesting millions of dollars in funding to expand their teleworking capacities during the coronavirus pandemic, Eric Katz at Nextgov reports. The funds could provide necessary relief to agencies that weren't prepared for a surge in teleworking and have struggled with overwhelmed networks and a dearth of laptops and other devices that can connect to government networks.

Acting Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought wrote a letter to lawmakers requesting nearly $46 billion in emergency funding so that agencies can make necessary adjustments to their telework and staffing.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation yesterday that would direct all federal agencies to allow all their eligible employees to telework full time.

PWNED: Congress is facing its own telework quandary as a growing number of members are sidelined by coronavirus diagnoses or by recommended quarantines after being exposed to someone with the virus, Derek Johnson at Federal Computer Week reports. The idea of telelegislating has gained support from members of both parties, but significant legal and technical obstacles could stand in the way including both chambers’ reliance on outdated and often insecure technology. 

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill that would allow senators to cast their votes from outside the chamber using reliable and secure technology. But Portman's office declined to say what secure systems Congress might use, Derek reports. 

Their IT infrastructure is old because they didn't invest in it, Daniel Schuman, a former legislative attorney with the Congressional Research Service who has been advocating for congressional teleworking during the pandemic, told Derek. On an emergency, ad hoc basis they can do the basics. Barely, but they can. On a long-term basis? No way.” 

The European parliament, meanwhile, has agreed to temporarily shift to voting by email, TechCrunch reports


— Cybersecurity news from the public sector:

U.S. combats martial law conspiracy theories as the National Guard assists in coronavirus response (Dan Lamothe)

Justice Department’s coronavirus considerations rankle civil liberties advocates (Matt Zapotosky)


— Cybersecurity news from the private sector:

Houseparty: Is The Hit Coronavirus Lockdown App Safe? (Forbes)

Inside an Instagram Celebrity Hacking Campaign (Vice)

Digital Payments Soar Amid Coronavirus Restrictions (Wall Street Journal)


— Cybersecurity news from abroad:

Europe eyes smartphone location data to stem virus spread (Associated Press)

Paris Hospitals Target of Failed Cyber-Attack, Authority Says (Bloomberg)