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Russian threat or not, Congress funds security upgrade for voting systems

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley. | Sun-Times files

Whether you believe the Russians tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections (they did), there is no denying election systems are potentially vulnerable to cyber-threats from troublemakers both foreign and domestic.

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, a Chicago Democrat, says he’s taken a small first step to address the danger.

Buried in the fine print of that $1.3 trillion federal spending bill that President Donald Trump signed into law Friday is $380 million to help states upgrade their election security and equipment.

Quigley said securing that funding was his top priority as the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the federal Election Assistance Commission, which will dispense the funds.

The Illinois State Board of Elections was among election agencies nationwide targeted by cyber-ttacks in 2016, U.S. intelligence officials have disclosed.

Authorities say the Illinois breach allowed someone to retrieve confidential information from nearly 80,000 of the state’s registered voters.

The 2016 hacking is not believed to have targeted actual voting machines or vote tallying equipment in the United States, but Quigley said intelligence officials believe that’s likely the next threat.

Quigley has some insight into the Russian interference question as a member of the House Intelligence Committee. And that’s why he has no qualms about stating unequivocally that the Russians did it.

But he said he was able to successfully argue for the election money despite Republican resistance to the Russia narrative because “there’s a recognition across party lines that this is a threat.”

“The biggest thing is they need voting equipment. Forget the attack. It’s just very old,” the congressman said.

The truth is that $380 million is a relative drop in the bucket toward the potential overall cost, falling far short of the $3.5 billion that the federal government pumped into modernizing state election equipment following the “hanging chad” fiasco of the George W. Bush-Al Gore election in 2000.

Quigley admits the decimal point is not where he wants it.

Still, it was enough of a step in the right direction that the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University hailed the news as a “breakthrough for democracy.”

“Dozens of states are struggling to keep old equipment up to date, and this infusion of cash from Congress is an important down payment on securing our election, and instilling confidence among the public that their votes will be accurately, securely counted,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s democracy program.

The greatest concerns involve 13 states still using voting equipment that leaves no paper trail that can later be used to audit the system to make sure votes were recorded correctly.

“They could be hacked, and I don’t have any idea how we would ever know,” Quigley said.

Illinois already has such protections in its voting systems.

As it happens, though, both the city of Chicago and Cook County are in the process of trying to replace outdated election equipment that they say is suffering from breakdowns.

Earlier this month, outgoing County Clerk David Orr presented, then withdrew from consideration, a $31 million proposed contract with Dominion Voting Systems Inc. The Denver company would provide new equipment and ongoing support for 10 years.

Noah Praetz, director of elections for the clerk’s office, said Orr is seeking to roll out the new equipment for this year’s general election.

Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Jim Allen said the city does not anticipate getting new voting equipment of its own until after the 2019 municipal elections, citing budget and time constraints.

“Any little bit will help,” Allen said of the federal funding.

Illinois is expected to receive $15 million from the $380 million appropriation, based on a per capita distribution formula. Chicago and Cook County would split about $6 million from the state’s share.

In recognition of the cyber-threat, the city and county recently collaborated to jointly hire a new election infrastructure and information security officer.