Department of Homeland Security officials held a series of meetings last week as part of an effort to improve engagement on defending election infrastructure from cyber threats ahead of the 2018 midterms, including formally establishing a new private sector information sharing council.

Kirstjen Nielsen, DHS secretary, led four days of briefings and discussions with election officials and private sector partners to detail new classified information on potential threats and ways to meet new cyber resiliency capabilities, following Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

“The American public’s confidence that their vote counts — and is counted correctly — relies on secure election infrastructure. The first primaries of the 2018 midterm election cycle are just around the corner, and DHS and our federal, state and local partners have been working together for more than a year to bolster the cyber security of the nation’s election infrastructure,” Nielsen said in a Tuesday statement.

DHS has faced scrutiny from lawmakers in recent months after it took department officials nearly a year to alert 21 states their voting systems faced hacking attempts in the 2016 election.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill in December to create new guidelines for information sharing between state election officials and DHS (Defense Daily, Dec. 21). The House also passed legislation in December reorganizing DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate into its own operational agency to have greater election system protection authorities (Defense Daily, Dec. 12).

On Feb. 15, Nielsen and other DHS officials met with the Election Assistance Commission, the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), the National Association of State Election Directors and state and local election officials to convene the threat sharing Government Coordinating Council.

Discussions focused on advancing risk management efforts and building up information sharing partnerships, according to DHS officials.

“Our top priority as NASS is to improve communication between DHS and the state and local election officials. We see all of these meetings and briefings as a positive step forward,” Maria Benson, NASS director of communications, told Defense Daily. “I will add that in regards to support, NASS and Secretaries of State have been calling on Congress for years to appropriate the remaining $396 million of the “Help America Vote Act” money. These funds will immediately help states prepare for the upcoming 2018 elections by improving election systems and bolstering cybersecurity efforts.”

DHS held a second meeting on Friday in Arlington, Va., to formally establish the private-sector focused Sector Coordination Council for the Election Infrastructure Subsector. The meeting addressed known vulnerabilities in election systems and potential capabilities to address cyber needs.

Participants in the SCC meeting included Dominion Voting Systems, Microvote General Corp., PCC Technology Inc., Smartmatic, Tenex Software Solutions, Unisyn Voting Solutions.

Subsequent meetings on Feb. 16, 17 and 18 included DHS discussions with the NASS executive board, as well as FBI-led briefings with election officials from all 50 states.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions also announced Tuesday the Department of Justice would be starting a new Cyber-Digital Task force to assess the department’s ability to fight cyber threats, including those used for election interference.