Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said at a forum hosted by The Atlantic in Washington Thursday that while his department is concerned about state actors or cybercriminals "that intrude into the Internet presence of state election officials," it would be "very difficult through any sort of cyberintrusion to alter the ballot count" of elections.
FBI Director James Comey later addressed the same concerns at the Intelligence and National Security Summit, also in Washington, saying that the bureau takes the notion of foreign spies tampering with US elections very seriously. But, he added, the decentralized nature of how elections are carried out, as well as "clunky" systems that states use to tabulate votes, would make a hacking of the election very hard to accomplish.
The concerns of election tampering follow cyberintrusions into voter databases in two states by foreign actors last week
. In Illinois in July, hackers accessed a database for the Illinois Board of Elections, compromising up to 200,000 personal voter records, according to Ken Menzel, general counsel for the board.
In Arizona, officials had to take the statewide voting registration system offline in late May after the FBI alerted the Arizona Department of Administration that there was a credible cyberthreat to the voter registration system, according to Matthew Roberts, director of communications for the Arizona secretary of state.
Investigators believe the hackers in both cases are likely based overseas, according to a law enforcement official. Following the intrusions in Arizona and Illinois, DHS and the FBI have been assisting states in increasing their security and testing their systems.
Johnson said that while DHS has been offering assistance to state election officials "by way of cyberhygiene, cyberevaluations, incident response and information sharing." The offer of assistance does not, however, "mean a federal takeover of state election systems, local elections, or even national elections."
"We don't have the authority to do that," Johnson said.
Comey echoed those statements, saying the FBI and DHS have been equipping state and local partners with the information they need to "make sure that the lock is thrown and the deadbolt is thrown on their systems. I don't want to say more than that," adding that the Constitution ensures that state's rights to run their own elections are protected.