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Election Security Update


This week, the acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire sat before the House Intelligence Committee. The hearing, of course, focused on President Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president, but we noticed that Maguire also said this.


JOSEPH MAGUIRE: The greatest challenge that we do have is to make sure that we maintain the integrity of our election system.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So of course, we thought to bring in NPR's Miles Parks, who covers voting and election security.

Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've been covering this issue as the country has been scrambling to react to the 2016 election in time for 2020. So where do Maguire's comments fit into that?

PARKS: So there's two things on this. The intelligence community views this threat as something that is constantly changing. You know, we have to protect against the types of attacks we saw in 2016 - your phishing attacks, these break-ins to voter registration systems - but you also have to protect for what's going to be coming next. We've seen increased focus, for instance, from the Department of Homeland Security talking about ransomware as a threat to elections. This is something we've seen affect other aspects of government, but we haven't seen it break into the election space yet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's when someone hacks into...

PARKS: When an attacker hacks into your system, he's able to basically lock it down and say, if you don't pay me this money, we're either going to not let you access it again, or we're going to delete everything, which, you can imagine, would have a huge effect if this were to happen a week or a month before an election needs to happen.


PARKS: So we have that kind of a focus on what's going to be happening in 2020 and 2024. But then the other thing is that this comment from Maguire just feels naturally at odds with President Trump's actions. We had the head of the spy community saying the integrity of our elections is our top priority when just a couple months ago, President Trump was clearly willing to ask a foreign leader for help to dig up dirt on a political rival.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Republicans, on the whole, have been more resistant to the idea that our elections need an overhaul, right? But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said he would reverse course and would now support giving more money to states to improve election security. So what is he saying there, and what's happening?

PARKS: So Mitch McConnell now says he will support giving about $250 million - this is in addition to the $380 million that came from Congress last year - in grants to the states. But election officials, on a whole, are actually really frustrated at the precedent this could be setting - these one-time surprise chunks of money as opposed to consistent year-to-year funding.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That allows them to plan.

PARKS: Exactly - allows them to plan and implement the technology in ways that aren't so ad hoc. The acting secretary of state of Pennsylvania - her name's Katherine Boockvar - she talked about this exact thing in a hearing on Capitol Hill on Friday.


KATHERINE BOOCKVAR: We don't do once-and-done appropriations for other types of security, for health care, for education. We look at these as ongoing investments, and that's how we have to look at our elections. Nothing is more important than the security of our democracy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is this new funding going to be in place in time for the 2020 elections?

PARKS: So probably not. It takes a while to get this money out to states and get it spent. But the $380 million that was allocated last year, on a whole, will probably be spent in a way that it'll have an effect on the 2020 election.

But it's also important, Lulu, to have context here. The United States is going to be in a much-improved place than where we were leading into the 2016 election. Maybe the most - the biggest vulnerability leading to that election was actually, like, a lack of awareness and a lack of communication. And those aspects of our election infrastructure have been greatly improved. But confidence is shaken right now, and it's going to take a long time and a lot of improvement before election officials can say with a lot of confidence that the way we vote is completely secure. We're not there yet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Miles Parks breaking it down. Thanks so much.

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

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.