US election systems will henceforth be treated as “critical infrastructure,” the Department of Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson decreed Friday in a move some are describing as a major federal overreach.
In a letter to the Associated Press, Johnson revealed the US government would monitor and intervene in future elections, a process previously handled on a state-by-state basis.
“Given the vital role elections play in this country, it is clear that certain systems and assets of election infrastructure meet the definition of critical infrastructure, in fact and in law,” Johnson stated. “Particularly in these times, this designation is simply the right and obvious thing to do.”
The designation “allows for information to be withheld from the public when state, local and private partners meet to discuss election infrastructure security – potentially injecting secrecy into an election process that’s traditionally and expressly a transparent process,” according to the AP.
“U.S. officials say such closed door conversations allow for frank discussion that would prevent bad actors from learning about vulnerabilities. DHS would also be able to grant security clearances when appropriate and provide more detailed threat information to states.”
The announcement of a federal takeover of the electoral process follows a report from several intelligence agencies also released Friday which purports the Russian government worked to influence the outcome of the 2016 US election.
The AP reports several states in recent months opposed the move fearing “the designation would lead to increased federal regulation or oversight on the many decentralized and locally run voting systems across the country.”
At least one member of the US Election Infrastructure Cybersecurity Working Group, Georgia Secretary of State Brian P. Kemp, stated he opposed the measure claiming “more federal oversight could make systems more vulnerable and could make protected records more accessible,” the AP writes.
Kemp reportedly called the move “a federal overreach into a sphere constitutionally reserved for the states” on a conference call with Johnson Thursday, and said the designation “smacks of partisan politics.”
Examples of election infrastructure include storage facilities, voter registration databases, voting locations, voting machines and other systems designed to manage the election process, the AP notes.
DHS currently designates 16 public sectors as “critical infrastructure sectors,” including the communications sector, the food and agriculture sector and the energy sector. “Critical infrastructure” is defined as systems “so vital to the US that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof,” according to DHS.
As recently as August when he addressed concerns by then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump over election rigging, Obama asserted the federal government plays no role in US elections.
“Of course the elections will not be rigged. What does that mean? The federal government doesn’t run the election process. States and cities and communities all across the country, they’re the ones who set up the voting systems and the voting booths.”
“If Mr. Trump is suggesting that there is a conspiracy theory that is being propagated across the country – including in places like Texas, where typically it’s not Democrats who are in charge of voting booths – that’s ridiculous, that doesn’t make any sense, and I don’t think anyone should take that seriously.”