With the first congressional primary less than three weeks away, state election officials are ramping up efforts to protect their voting systems from cyber attacks as the nation's intelligence officials warn that Russia will once again try to meddle in U.S. elections.
Some states are moving to protect election data by encrypting their systems to thwart hackers, while others are asking the Department of Homeland Security to check their systems for vulnerabilities.
Their actions come in the wake of revelations by homeland security officials last year that Russian hackers tried to break into the election systems of 21 states in 2016. Although no actual votes were changed, hackers did breach Illinois' voter registration database.
On Friday, special counsel Robert Mueller filed his first criminal charges against Russian citizens and businesses for what he called a wide-ranging effort to undermine the 2016 presidential election.
The threat is real and the response needs to be robust and coordinated," said Matthew Masterson, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, an independent agency of the U.S. government that provides information about how to administer elections. "Folks in the election community are taking the threats very seriously and taking whatever steps they can to address it."
So far, Congress has done little to help.
A bipartisan Senate bill to provide $386 million in federal grants to states to help them improve their election systems hasn't received a hearing or vote in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. And there are no immediate plans by Senate leaders to bring the Secure Elections Act to the floor for a vote.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who introduced the bill with Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said she will try to attach it to a must-pass government-funding bill in March. She said more than 40 states rely on electronic voting systems that are at least 10 years old.
"Two-hundred-and-sixty six. That's the number of days left before the 2018 (general) election ... a little more than 9 months and we still cannot assure Americans that our elections are secure," Klobuchar said Monday during a speech at the Center for American Progress. "It is unacceptable and, at this point now, it's on us."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is co-sponsoring Klobuchar's bill, said Congress needs to act soon to do states any good.
"This is an election year in our country, and it's frankly frustrating to me that we haven't passed legislation to help states strengthen the security of their voting systems," Collins said Tuesday at a hearing where the heads of the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russian hackers will target the 2018 congressional elections.
The committee plans to release a plan soon to help give states recommendations on ways to protect their voting systems. The first primary is set for March 6 in Texas, followed by one on March 20 in Illinois. There is also a special election for a western Pennsylvania congressional district March 13.
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, released a report this week evaluating state election systems. Not a single state received an "A" rating. Eleven states received a B, 23 states received a C, 12 states received a D, and five states received an F.
Masterson said financially strapped state election agencies could use more funds to safeguard against cyber attacks.