Top voting official: Federal overreach as big a threat as Russian hacking

Concern is growing about the extent of Russian hacking of U.S. voting systems. But a top voting official sees an equally grave threat in efforts by the federal government to stop future cyberattacks.

In Senate testimony Wednesday, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, who’s the president-elect of the National Association of Secretaries of State, harshly criticized a move by the Obama administration in January to designate election systems as critical infrastructure. The move was a belated bid to better defend voting systems from outside threats.

“This process threatens to erode public confidence in our election process as much as any foreign cyber threat,” Lawson, a Republican who was appointed last month to the White House’s controversial commission on voter fraud, told the Senate Intelligence committee during a hearing on foreign threats to our elections.

Intelligence officials testified at the same hearing that Russian hackers targeted 21 states’ voting systems during last year’s election. They said there’s no evidence votes were changed, but TIME reported Thursday that in at least one case, voter records were altered, though the problem was discovered and fixed. Two Democratic members of the White House voting commission this week called for it to focus on Russian hacking, saying the issue poses a major threat to public confidence in elections. And a Democratic member of the Federal Election Commission has said that panel, too, must probe the issue.

But in her testimony, Lawson appeared more concerned that the federal government would use the critical infrastructure designation to usurp states’ authority to run elections.

The designation, Lawson said, “provides [the Homeland Security Department] and other federal agencies with a large amount of unchecked authority over our elections process.”

Lawson lodged several more specific criticisms of the way DHS has handled the process. She accused it of failing to inform state election officials about evidence of hacking—a charge also leveled this week at the National Security Agency by California’s Democratic secretary of state. In addition, Lawson said that though the designation is supposed to improve information sharing, no secretaries of state are currently authorized to receive classified threat information from intelligence agencies. And she said DHS hadn’t yet clearly explained to state election officials what the designation even means.

State election officials, especially conservative ones, tend to zealously guard against any perceived encroachment on their authority from Washington. And Lawson isn’t the only state election official to see in DHS’s move a potential bid to increase federal control of elections. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp recently told The Washington Post it was “a politically calculated move by the previous administration,” adding that he doesn’t “necessarily believe” Russia tried to disrupt the election.


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