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Ballot security battle heats up already hot Roskam-Casten House race

6th district Illinois Rep Peter Roskam faces a tough challenge from Democrat Sean Casten, a Downers Grove former energy company executive. | Sun-Times photos

6th District Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam (l) Democrat (r) Sean Casten | Sun-Times photos

Rival candidates in the Chicago area’s hottest congressional race sparred over the issue of election hacking on Friday as Democratic challenger Sean Casten accused Republican incumbent Peter Roskam of being asleep at the switch in protecting ballot integrity.

Roskam fired back that Casten was engaging in silly political stunts.

The volley came a day after Democrats in Washington filled the U.S. House floor with chants of “USA! USA!” as they voted to pass additional funds to states for election security.  But Roskam joined the GOP majority in thwarting the measure as wasteful spending.

On Friday, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin appeared with Casten to take Roskam to task. They visited a Downer’s Grove Public Library. The Chicago suburb is in Roskam’s 6th Congressional District, a key target of Democrats seeking to win control of the House.

Durbin and Casten focused on Thursday’s party-line vote against a proposal by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, to boost funding to state election authorities.

“My representative is doing nothing to make sure that we protect that system,” Casten said. “I am ashamed that my representative consistently sits down.”

Quigley’s amendment to the House spending bill would appropriate an additional $380 million in fiscal year 2019 to states for tightening defenses against cyber attacks on elections. Roskam was among the Republicans who voted down the amendment, even in the middle of the Democrats’ theatrics.

Roskam said the $380 million that was appropriated for the current year has not entirely been spent, and called the Democrats’ move “a political stunt and gimmick.”

“Sean Casten has to get serious about running for Congress. This is a political stunt, and I’m disappointed that he dragged Senator Durbin into it,” Roskam said.

Durbin called Roskam “foolish” for his vote.

“He might have thought he saved a few bucks, but if, at the end of the day, there is any question about the outcome of this election and its integrity, then we have played right into the hands of Vladmir Putin,” Durbin said.

Roskam noted that after President Donald Trump’s widely criticized appearance with the Russian president earlier this week, Roskam privately confronted Trump to raise his concerns.

“I drew contrast with what he should have done,” Roskam said. “I could tell he was very defensive. He said, ‘This is a different time, circumstances are different.’”

Roskam also pointed to legislative proposals he supports to implement sanctions on Russia’s banking and energy sectors should they attack the 2018 elections.

The federal government appropriated $380 million in 2018 to the states for cyber security. Illinois is using its $13 million to set up a “cyber navigator program” to fortify the security systems of all 108 voting jurisdictions in the state ahead of midterm elections. The program is still being implemented, and Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich said security experts should be deployed to the various jurisdictions beginning in August.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin holds a press conference to speak about DACA at the National Immigrant Justice Center, Tuesday afternoon, April 3, 2018.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The additional spending Quigley proposed could help with updating outdated election equipment throughout the state, and would line up with the level of funding appropriated in 2004 that was then used to overhaul equipment, Dietrich said.

“We were always under the impression that there would be more that would follow this. If you go back to 2005, we got ten times more than what we received this year, we got $144.4 million,” Dietrich said. “That was used to actually replace voting systems with county clerks and the Board of Elections was able to replace entire voting systems.”

Illinois surfaced in the election security debate after election officials acknowledged it was “very likely” the state was the target of a voter data hack referred to in an indictment of Russian intelligence officers handed down a week ago. Though the indictment said the information of “approximately 500,000 voters” had been compromised, Dietrich said the number is actually closer to 76,000 — the number of voters who were personally notified of the attack in 2016.

It was revealed last summer that there was a major “hole” in Illinois that left the voter registration database vulnerable to hackers, a flaw that was immediately addressed and communicated with local voting authorities.

AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

Is Illinois still being targeted?

“I can’t speak to specific things that we may or may not have detected,” Dietrich said. “But what I can say is that we’ve been getting cyber hygiene scans on our database for almost two years now, going back to October 2016, and they found no vulnerabilities since then,” Dietrich said. “So in that sense we’re doing everything we can do.”

A Microsoft executive has said there were three known US midterm election candidates subjected to hacking attempts, but he refused to say whether Russians were the culprits or name the victims of the attacks.

“I have no idea if that was me,” Casten said.

Dietrich said he did not know the identities of the three described by Microsoft, but he said candidate’s records are safe.

“All candidates file their financial records with us electronically, everything we do here is subject to cyber security, we keep everything secure,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich noted that despite the concerns,voters are still registering.

“The data hack is extremely unnerving, but it won’t stop me from voting,” Alex Nelson responded on Twitter.

She’s not alone. Since automatic voter registration began in Illinois on July 2, there have been 20,291 new or updated registrations.

“Your registration data is safe, you should register to vote and you should vote,” Dietrich said. “We want people to know that while we were the victim of a breach two years ago, we were the ones that recognized it, we caught ourselves, we closed it, and we’ve done extensive work since then to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”