U.S. officials are weighing whether to designate elections as national critical infrastructure in the wake of recent hacking attacks on political groups, a move that would open up federal assistance to election officers around the country, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.
“We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process, is critical infrastructure,” Johnson told reporters Wednesday at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “There’s a vital national interest in our election process.”
The debate comes after hackers infiltrated the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in what cybersecurity experts call a broad operation by Russian operatives to infiltrate U.S. political organizations. Hillary Clinton’s campaign said hackers also breached one of its data programs, adding that cybersecurity efforts found “no evidence” that internal systems were compromised.
The attacks have spurred speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is trying to meddle in and influence U.S. elections, a charge officials in Moscow have repeatedly denied. The FBI is investigating the breaches.
The hacking also revives a lingering debate over whether electronic voting systems, which have replaced paper ballots in many jurisdictions, could be hacked to manipulate the results. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said this week that he’s “afraid the election’s gonna be rigged,” although Republicans have focused mostly on potential fraud by ineligible voters.
Asked Tuesday about the reports of Russia’s possible involvement in hacking, President Barack Obama said, “If in fact Russia engaged in this activity, it’s just one on a long list of issues that me and Mr. Putin talk about and that I’ve got a real problem with.”
Johnson said the U.S. wasn’t yet prepared to attribute the attacks to any particular nation or group. Designating elections as critical infrastructure would put them on par with other vital national assets, such as the power grid and pipelines. In the short term, Johnson said he is considering working with election officials across the country about what kind of “best practices” they can adopt to enhance cybersecurity.
“This is something that we’re very focused on right now,” Johnson said. “There’s no one federal election system. There are some 9,000 jurisdictions across this country that are involved in the election process.”