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Federal officials working with states to protect elections

August 27, 2019
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FILE - In this May 17, 2016, file photo, ballots are prepared for counting at Multnomah County election headquarters in Portland, Ore. Federal officials are working to bolster defenses on the state and even county levels against interference in the 2020 elections, running scenarios where things go awry in the run-up to the vote. In Oregon, officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency carried out a tabletop exercise with county and state elections officials last week. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)
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FILE - In this May 17, 2016, file photo, ballots are prepared for counting at Multnomah County election headquarters in Portland, Ore. Federal officials are working to bolster defenses on the state and even county levels against interference in the 2020 elections, running scenarios where things go awry in the run-up to the vote. In Oregon, officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency carried out a tabletop exercise with county and state elections officials last week. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Huddled in small groups in a remote town in Oregon, county and state elections officials tried to overcome hacking attempts, power failures and other problems as election day approached and finally arrived.

It was a tabletop exercise, held as federal officials work to bolster defenses against interference in the 2020 elections, with states being a main line of defense against attempts by Russia or others to disrupt the elections.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency traveled to La Grande, a town located in ranching country in northeast Oregon, for Wednesday’s exercise with county and state officials.

During the event held on the campus of Eastern Oregon University, the officials had to work through various scenarios, like official websites being hacked, disinformation being spread on social media and electrical power and communications going down, Oregon Elections Director Stephen Trout said in a telephone interview.

Disinformation involves deliberately spreading falsehoods and rumors, while misinformation — another election security threat that experts point to — entails simply disseminating incorrect or misleading information.

The federal officials are doing these exercises in states across the country. Earlier this summer, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, also hosted the second annual “Tabletop the Vote” national exercise involving 47 states, other government agencies and private sector election companies.

Matt Masterson, senior cybersecurity adviser at CISA, said the exercise displayed a strong partnership between CISA, the office of Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno and county election officials.

“Exercises like this play a critical role in election security by bringing everyone together so we can better understand each other’s processes and improve incident response plans,” Masterson said.

New Jersey’s secretary of state is preparing to hold a similar drill on Sept. 10 in Princeton.

Besides participating in the national table top exercise, Vermont officials held a New England Regional Summit, with attendance from secretary of state offices, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and others, said Eric Covey, chief of staff of Vermont’s secretary of state’s office.

Federal officials also provide the Vermont secretary of state’s office with weekly scans, looking for vulnerabilities in election infrastructure so action can be taken to mitigate risk, Covey said. Vermont is also in the queue for a DHS-conducted simulated phishing campaign, Covey said.

In 2016, hackers famously gained access to the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and stole over 50,000 emails. The hackers used phishing emails to steal login credentials. U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian military intelligence officers with breaking into Democratic Party emails, and indicted other Russians who used phony social media accounts to spread divisive rhetoric and undermine the U.S. political system.

Trout said federal officials are right to focus their efforts to protect the 2020 election at the state level.

“The state is the top level,” he said. “There are no federal election administrators.”

Homeland Security officials are also visiting every county in Oregon to check on systems, Trout said. Oregon has a vote-by-mail system, where votes are tallied at county clerk’s offices.

Trout said his biggest fear is disinformation, and that it underscores the need to advise voters not to believe everything they read and to bolster their confidence that their vote is going to be counted as cast. Oregon is looking at using Facebook, YouTube and other tools in an education campaign, he said.

Clarno said she feels the state is more able now than in previous elections to fend off any disruptions, and that the biggest threat is misinformation.

“That was the biggest problem in 2016 and we expect more of the same in 2020. Just because you read something on social media or online doesn’t mean it’s true,” Clarno said in a statement.

Trout said these tabletop exercises also build bonds between technology specialists and clerks and other election officials.

“Three years ago, election folks didn’t even know what cybersecurity was,” he said.

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AP writers Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vermont, and Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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