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Senate Intelligence Committee Recommends More Security For Midterms, Not How To Fund It


A big question is hanging over the midterm elections this fall. It's this. What is the best way to protect the vote from foreign interference? The Senate Intelligence Committee took up that question at a hearing today. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas is here to tell us more. Ryan, thanks for coming.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: My pleasure.

MARTIN: First, context - there's been a lot of attention on the Russians' hacking of emails and their disinformation campaigning during the 2016 election. But did they also target state election systems?

LUCAS: They did. That's right. And that's in large part why there's so much concern right now about making sure that state voting systems are secure ahead of the midterms. And this is important because public confidence in the integrity of an election and the results is really a key part of how U.S. democracy works.

Now, why the concern? As you said, the Russians targeted election systems in 2016. The Department of Homeland Security says that happened in 21 states. DHS says the Russians managed to access a system in only one state. That was a voter registration database in Illinois. Officials say no data was changed; no vote tallies were changed.

But the security of election systems - and when I say that, I'm talking about everything from voter databases to voting machines used on Election Day - is still a really big concern here. This isn't just fears that vote tallies could be changed. There are concerns that a foreign adversary - take Russia - could delete voters from voter rolls, for example, on a large enough scale that it could lead to chaos on Election Day and doubts about the integrity of the election itself.

MARTIN: Well, how concerned are U.S. officials that Russia or another country will try to hack the midterm elections?

LUCAS: They're very concerned. For months, senior U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers have been warning that 2016 wasn't a one-off for Russia. They say the Kremlin will try to interfere again. They say other countries could follow Russia's lead. Today DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen reiterated this point in her testimony. Here's a bit of what she had to say.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: We think the threat remains high. We think vigilance is important, and we think there's a lot that we all need to do at all levels of government before we have the midterm elections.

LUCAS: Now, another DHS official said today that the department hasn't seen anything at this point that would suggest that a foreign adversary might be testing systems ahead of the midterms. But there's still a lot of concern that this is a potential target.

MARTIN: OK, so what is the government doing to safeguard future elections?

LUCAS: Well, one of the big problems in 2016 was communication between federal government on one hand and state and local election officials on another. It took a year for DHS to inform states that their systems were targeted by Russia. One thing that hampered the feds from sharing information with state officials was that a lot of the information was classified. So DHS says it's working to fix that.

Already about 20 out of 150 state election officials have received security clearances. And the DHS secretary said today that if the department has information of a threat, it can share it immediately with state officials, even state officials who don't have clearance yet. She said that more than half the states have signed up for a DHS cyber-scanning service which would help identify potential probing.

But there are also some very simple steps that can be taken to help secure the vote and ensure confidence in it. One of the most important is making sure that a voting system leaves a paper trail that can be audited. Old-school paper ballots are one example of this. As one person said today, you can't hack a piece of paper. And this is important because right now, five states are entirely paperless in their voting, and several others have areas, jurisdictions that have paperless voting.

MARTIN: OK, final question - it's reasonable to assume that some of these changes will cost money. Who's going to pay for it?

LUCAS: Money is always an issue, isn't it? A lot of the voting machines used in states are old - in many cases, more than a decade old. Committee Chairman Richard Burr said today that upwards of $400 million for election security could be in the spending bill that Congress is looking to pass this week. But again, the clock is ticking on this. It takes time to get this stuff done. Some primaries have already happened. They're really going to get going in the late spring. So time is short, and lawmakers say this is urgent - got to get it done.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.