Federal officials working with states to protect elections

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Official election websites are being hacked. Disinformation is being spread on social media. Electrical power and communications are going down.

Elections officials from Oregon dealt with these and other scenarios in a tabletop exercise held with federal officials who are working to bolster defenses against interference in the 2020 elections.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency traveled to La Grande, a town in ranching country in northeast Oregon, for the exercise last week with state and county elections officials and technology specialists.

Connecticut held a similar exercise in June.

"There is no longer any question that foreign governments have sought and will continue to seek to interfere in our elections, and cybersecurity has moved to the top of every election official's priority list," Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said.

Earlier this summer, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, also hosted the second "Tabletop the Vote" national exercise involving 47 states, other government agencies and private sector election companies.

"Exercises like this play a critical role in election security by bringing everyone together so we can better understand each other's processes and improve incident response plans," said Matt Masterson, senior cybersecurity adviser at CISA.

The tabletop exercises also build bonds between technology specialists, county clerks and other election officials, said Oregon Elections Director Stephen Trout. It was only a couple of years that officials here began receiving training in avoiding phishing attempts and strengthening passwords, he said.

Homeland Security officials are also visiting every county in Oregon to check on systems, Trout said. Oregon has a vote-by-mail system, where votes are tallied at county clerk's offices.

New Jersey's secretary of state is preparing to hold a similar drill on Sept. 10 in Princeton. This fall, a full day will be dedicated in Oklahoma to election security, including training and briefings from Homeland Security officials and State Election Board staff and contractors. Michigan has a presentation scheduled involving city and township clerks, along with DHS and CISA.

Besides participating in the national table top exercise, Vermont officials held a New England Regional Summit, with attendance from secretary of state offices, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and others.

Federal officials also provide the Vermont secretary of state's office with weekly scans, looking for vulnerabilities in election infrastructure so action can be taken to mitigate risk, said Eric Covey, chief of staff of Vermont's secretary of state's office. Vermont is also in the queue for a DHS-conducted simulated phishing campaign, Covey said.

In 2016, hackers gained access to the email account of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, and stole over 50,000 emails. The hackers used phishing emails to steal login credentials. U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers with breaking into Democratic Party emails, and indicted other Russians who used phony social media accounts to spread divisive rhetoric and undermine the U.S. political system.

Trout said federal officials are right to focus their efforts to protect the 2020 election at the state level.

"The state is the top level," he said. "There are no federal election administrators."

Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno said she feels her state is more able now to fend off any disruptions, and that the biggest threat is misinformation.

"That was the biggest problem in 2016 and we expect more of the same in 2020. Just because you read something on social media or online doesn't mean it's true," Clarno said in a statement.

Trout said the threat of disinformation underscores the need to advise voters not to believe everything they read and to bolster their confidence that their vote is going to be counted as cast. Oregon is looking at using Facebook, YouTube and other tools in an education campaign, he said.


AP writers Susan Haigh in Hartford, Connecticut; Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; and Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.


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