State Officials Say They Are Told Too Little About Election Threats

A sign directing voters to a polling station in Austin, Tex., in 2016. Election officials in some states say they need to know more about digital threats to their election systems than federal officials have been telling them.

WASHINGTON — More than 15 months after a general election that was stained by covert Russian interference, the chief election officials of some states say they are still not getting the information they need to safeguard the vote.

They say the federal government is not sharing specifics about threats to registered voter databases, voting machines, communication networks and other systems that could be vulnerable to hacking and manipulation.

In some cases, the election officials say they have no legal access to the information: After a year of effort, only 21 of them have received clearance to review classified federal information on election threats.

Top federal officials have promised to do better. Still, some leaders worry that there will not be enough time to protect the integrity of the midterm election season, which will kick off in some states in the next few weeks.

“It’s not about 2020, it’s not about November 2018 — it’s about primaries that are upon us now,” said Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state.

The state officials expressed their unhappiness at a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State that ended on Monday. The officials from Washington, West Virginia and other states complained openly about the quality and speed of federal cooperation.

Their worries were underscored by the indictment of 13 Russians last week in connection with an elaborate online campaign to boost Donald J. Trump’s candidacy in 2016 and to demonize Hillary Clinton. Hours after the indictment was announced, President Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, said it was “incontrovertible” that Moscow was engaging in a campaign of “disinformation, subversion and espionage” that he said Washington would continue to expose.

Some state leaders said they were disappointed over a classified briefing they received on Friday on the threat posed by Russia, saying that senior intelligence officials left a great deal unclear, including the precise nature of the threat and exactly why state officials were being left in the dark.

“I would have thought that behind closed doors yesterday would have been the time to say, ‘This is why this stuff has to be classified,’ and I heard none of it,” Mac Warner, the Republican secretary of state in West Virginia, said on Saturday at a discussion of security preparations for the 2018 election season. “The phrase ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’ comes to mind.”

Department of Homeland Security officials acknowledged the need for improvement. “That’s the No. 1 goal for us — to make sure you get what you need,” Christopher Krebs, the department’s acting undersecretary for national protection, told the state officials. “A year ago, I don’t think we had that self-awareness and humility, but things are a little bit different now.”

Still, the federal officials urged the state secretaries to take their word that the threat from Russia and possibly other countries was substantial, even if they were not given specifics.

“There are reasons that we are worried that things could become more serious,” said Robert Kolasky, the Department of Homeland Security’s deputy assistant secretary for infrastructure protection. “Professionals at the senior level with a lot of experience saw that they got close enough to the line — the Russians got close enough to the line — and anticipate that it could be different, or worse, the next time.”

Intelligence officials told a Senate committee last week that they have already seen evidence of Russian attempts to meddle in the 2018 midterm elections.

Federal and state experts face a panoply of election-security threats. Online voter-registration systems are perhaps the most easily compromised by hackers, but almost anything that is connected to a network or to removable media like a thumb drive is potentially vulnerable: Voting machines and their software, electronic pollbooks that verify voters’ identities, even the communications lines that transmit precinct results to central tabulation centers.

As a practical matter, most of these systems are so decentralized or secure already that they are highly unlikely to be compromised deeply enough to manipulate an outcome. But that may not be the point of the attacks. For the public to accept that an election has been fair, people must have faith in the security of the voting system — and that faith, many experts suggest, is the real target of Russian attackers.

The state officials’ complaints reflect a rocky state-federal relationship. After the first public evidence of Russian efforts to penetrate electoral systems emerged in the summer of 2016, federal officials waited three months before telling election officials in the targeted states that their systems were the ones the Russians had gone after.

Then, in January 2017, the Homeland Security Department declared the states’ election apparatus to be “critical national infrastructure,” raising suspicion among state officials that their authority was being usurped.

In fact, the declaration was meant to be the basis for a voluntary effort to cooperate with the states in thwarting attacks on election systems. That effort is now overseen by a council of 24 state and local election officials and three federal liaisons.

Most state officials praise the security measures that Homeland Security experts have offered them so far, including what are called cyberhygiene checks of computer systems; sensors that watch for suspicious network traffic; and a national election-security analysis center.

Connie Lawson, the Republican secretary of state in Indiana and the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, joked on Saturday that the state secretaries’ relationship with Homeland Security “is going about as well as any arranged marriage can go.”

Despite communications gaps and complications in dealing with the huge federal bureaucracy, she said, cooperation had vastly improved and “it’s going to continue to improve.”

But others said they were far from pleased with the flow of information about the threats and, as a result, have made major investments in voting equipment and cybersecurity.

Some state officials say the Russian attacks that made news in 2016 were misconstrued, and perhaps exaggerated, because federal officials failed to say quickly and clearly what was going on. Of the 21 states that were targeted by the Russians then, only one — Illinois — suffered a known breach of an election-related database, and that breach was contained. Most of the other states appear to have experienced little more than digital probing for weak spots in their computer defenses, a routine occurrence.

“My state was one of the 21 states that they tried to get into,” Kim Wyman, the Republican secretary of state in Washington, said in an interview. “There were a couple of I.P. addresses where we saw activity that wasn’t normal. We blocked them, and we found out later that they were Russian. So our system worked: They sort of went around the house, checked the doors and couldn’t get in.

“On our system, tens of thousands of those attempts are made daily. Some of those attempts are by Russians. But we also have criminals, and kids who just want to prove they can get into a system.”

The 27-member coordinating council was created in part to keep state and local election officials apprised of new threats. But at the secretaries of states’ meeting in Washington, some state election officials said that had yet to happen.

Ms. Wyman said she found out only last week that Homeland Security experts had met weeks ago with her state’s chief information officer to discuss security issues, including some involving elections systems. “What I’m hearing from my colleagues around the country is that this is not unique,” she said. “My job is to instill confidence in the public that our elections are secure, that they can have full faith that their vote was counted accurately and wasn’t hacked. And if I don’t have all the information, it’s very hard to combat that.”

In California, a federal explanation of Russia’s targeting of state election systems “was a year late, and was not exactly accurate,” said Mr. Padilla, the secretary of state there. As it turned out, he said, the state computer systems the Russian hackers had scanned were not related to election networks.

Progress on setting up new lines of federal-state communication has been similarly glacial, Mr. Padilla said. “It took until November for the government coordinating council to be created and formalized,” he said. “This week was meeting No. 2. For the last year, there’s been a lot of frustration about the lack of frequency or even the quality of information.”

Mr. Padilla said he was hopeful that the commitment to new openness that federal officials offered would produce improvements. “Time will tell,” he said. “But depending on the state, the primary is maybe a handful of weeks away, or a couple of months away.”

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