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States Say They Need Federal Government's Help To Secure Midterm Elections


Election officials are warning that steps need to be taken now to protect voting in the U.S. from outside interference even though midterm elections are more than 10 months away. Efforts by Russian hackers last year to break into state election systems raised all sorts of alarms, but so far moves to make future elections secure have been limited. We're joined by NPR's Pam Fessler, who's been covering this issue. Hello, Pam.


SIEGEL: And what are the biggest concerns right now from those who are preparing for next year's elections?

FESSLER: Well, the big concern is that 2016 was just a trial run and that the next attack on U.S. elections could be successful. As you recall, the intelligence community concluded that Russian hackers tried to break into about 21 state election systems last year. And as far as we know, they only succeeded in breaking into Illinois' voter registration system, but no records or votes were changed. But it was still pretty unnerving.

And intelligence officials say that they're - fully expect that the hackers are going to be back, not just Russians but maybe North Koreans, China or anyone who wants to wreak havoc with U.S. elections. And they're also worried about what are called hacks for hire. And those are individuals who might be able to get access to a crucial voting system, and they'll just sell it to the highest bidder.

SIEGEL: Well, if those are the concerns, what is being done about this at this point?

FESSLER: Well, one of the big complaints last year is that the intelligence community was not sharing information with the people who actually run elections, that they weren't telling state and local officials what the threat was so they couldn't actually do anything to protect against it. In fact, it was only three months ago that the federal government told states exactly what happened last year as far as these hacking attempts. But since then, there actually has been a lot more communication. They're working together. They're - have coordinating committees to share intelligence.

They're trying to get security clearances for election officials so that they can get classified information. There's also a lot more security training for election officials, things like how to strengthen your password, how to detect any kind of problems, how to do post-election audits to make sure that votes haven't been tampered with. But a lot of these efforts are really just getting started.

SIEGEL: So what are some of the gaps in security that remain?

FESSLER: Well, the big concern that election officials have is aging voting equipment. About three-quarters of the states are using machines that are more than 10 years old. And these are very vulnerable to hackers. And they're trying to update their equipment. A lot of them want to - some of them don't even have paper backup ballots. And they're looking to replace that equipment, but they say they don't have the money. And they're asking the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars to help with that.

SIEGEL: And what are their chances of getting that help?

FESSLER: Well, one positive sign - last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced what they're calling the Secure Elections Act. And it would require more intelligence sharing. It would also provide for grants for the federal government. There's a lot of bipartisan support for this. But, you know, it's anybody's guess next year whether Congress is going to actually come up with that money. And if they do, it might not help for the 2018 election 'cause states are now making those preparations. September would be too late if that's when they get the money. And another question is just how supportive the Trump administration will be. The president has kind of dismissed these Russian hacking attempts as a hoax.

SIEGEL: He certainly has. NPR's Pam Fessler, thanks.

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

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.