Partisan Split Over Election Security Widens as 2018 Midterms Inch Closer

House given classified briefing on what DHS, FBI, DNI are doing to secure elections at state, local levels

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, left, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee address the media after a briefing on election security with House members in the Capitol Visitor Center on May 22, 2018. FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats also attended. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats and Republicans struck drastically different tones about their confidence in federal agencies’ efforts to secure voting systems and stamp out foreign state-sponsored influence campaigns ahead of the 2018 midterms after a classified meeting on the subject for House members Tuesday.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, and FBI Director Christopher Wray were among the officials who briefed lawmakers and answered their questions about what their agencies are doing to combat potential Russian, Iranian, Chinese, and other nations’ attempts to undermine the midterms.

Roughly 40 to 50 lawmakers showed up to the meeting, which House Speaker Paul D. Ryan organized for all House members.

Democrats who attended left largely unsatisfied.

“Coming out of that briefing I just feel kind of a pit in my stomach,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi said. The Illinois Democrat serves on the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Technology.

“I think we got to really work with the states. I don’t think they’re ready for 2018 yet,” he said.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, fielding questions alongside Nielsen, was less grave about the U.S.’s ability to shield its elections from foreign influence and meddling. The U.S. was “caught off guard last time,” McCaul said.

But he has “every confidence the secretary and the department ... through its cyber operations will be able to protect the voting machines” in 2018, he said.

Democrats renewed calls for more federal oversight over the election administration process, which is run at the state and local level — even if they’re unsure how exactly that takeover of some vital security operations would work.

“We got to exercise a lot more oversight at this point,” Krishnamoorthi said. “Now that we know — at least in my mind — that we may be unprepared, I think we have to ask a lot more questions about what we’re going to do to get prepared at this point.”

Republicans, on the other hand, did not signal a desire to increase the federal presence in elections administration beyond the ancillary role some intelligence community agencies play providing security information to local election officials.

“The DHS and the federal government can’t take over state elections,” McCaul said. “But we can provide the assistance and the grant funding and make sure they’re as protected as possible.”

Intelligence agencies have performed joint exercises with local officials on security matters and are working on obtaining higher-grade security clearances for secretaries of state so they can be fully informed about threats to the elections they’re in charge of administering.

“That’s really important,” GOP Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana said on her way out of the meeting Tuesday.

In the appropriations bill signed in March, lawmakers forked over $380 million to states to bolster their security, staff new IT departments, and purchase new voting booths that leave an auditable paper trail while scrapping paperless voting booths. States must request that money in order to access it.

But some state leaders, such as Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, have had trouble tapping into those funds because they require permission from state legislatures whose partisan factions have been unwilling so far to compromise and grant governors access to the funds. Just 29 states are expected to have filed paperwork requesting access to their federally approved grants by the end of May, The Washington Post reported.

Federal lawmakers are hopeful state officials will hurdle the barriers to receiving their money — it was set aside for a reason.

“I really hope all 50 states request assistance from DHS,” McCaul said. “But it’s really up to the state and locals to make that request.”

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