Election officials get training before 2020 voting begins


WASHINGTON (AP) — When state election officials gathered ahead of the last presidential election, major topics were voter registration, identity theft and ballot design. This year, the main theme is election security.

The change since 2016 underscores how election security has become a top concern with presidential nominating contests set to begin next week.

Kicking off Thursday’s meeting was a training exercise coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security. Election officials from 44 states joined officials with 11 federal agencies and representatives from more than a dozen voting technology companies to participate in the half-day exercise to help them keep votes secure.

“We’ve come a long ways,” said Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate. “That’s the strength of doing these tabletops: putting everyone in the same room so we have that contact and preparing for whatever scenarios might come up.”

The vast majority of panels at the biannual meetings of the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors are dedicated to cybersecurity, from what states can do to disrupt hacking attempts to the threat of ransomware.

“I‘m not aware of any other mission, any other issue, where we are this closely aligned,” said Christopher Krebs, director of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency. ”There is zero daylight between the things we are doing. We are intensely focused on election security efforts.”

States have been scrambling to shore up cybersecurity practices at the state and local level, train election officials and upgrade old and vulnerable voting equipment ahead of this year’s presidential election. This comes as the nation’s intelligence chiefs warn that Russia, Iran, China and North Korea remain a threat to interfere in U.S. elections.

In 2016, Russia launched a sweeping and systematic effort to undermine U.S. democracy by weaponizing social media, stealing and leaking campaign documents and scouring the nation’s state and local election systems for vulnerabilities. Experts say it’s possible that Russia and other hostile nations opted to sit out the 2018 midterms in preparation for this year’s high-stakes presidential contest.

After facing tough criticism for a lack of communication and coordination, the Department of Homeland Security has been focused on enhancing cyber defenses of the nation’s election systems, installing channels with state and local election officials to share threat information, providing cybersecurity resources such as security reviews and holding trainings like the one on Thursday.

Monday marks the first official nominating contest of the presidential election, with voters in Iowa choosing their pick of the Democratic presidential contenders. The Department of Homeland Security and the Democratic National Committee have been working to help the Iowa Democratic Party protect the election.

The Department of Homeland Security participated in training exercises in Iowa and plans to have an online communication portal activated on Monday to respond to any issues that might arise.

The Democratic National Committee will also have a team of cybersecurity experts in Iowa for Monday’s caucuses to identify and respond to any concerns.

A key concern will be any attempts to influence the public with disinformation, such as location or time changes for caucus events or false reports of problems checking in or accessing caucus sites. The DNC team will also be monitoring for any efforts to undermine public confidence in the results.