Why Ohio’s secretary of State doesn’t want federal help on election security

Jon Husted isn't worried about hackers manipulating ballots, but he is concerned about the possibility of increased federal oversight of elections.

Chris Keane/AP
A voter peels off a sticker during the North Carolina presidential primary in March 2016.

Ohio secretary of State Jon Husted says that his state’s electoral systems face no threat from hackers in this November's elections, expressing resistance to the Obama administration's possible designation of state systems as "critical infrastructure" – a move that would expand federal protections over them – in a letter addressed to his party's leadership in Congress.

"Under the U.S. Constitution, the right and responsibility to administer elections is reserved to the states," Mr. Husted, a Republican, wrote in the letter to House speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky. "Any attempt to usurp these duties in the name of security is a step too far."

Husted’s resistance to what he describes as a "federal takeover of state elections" may underscore not just conservative aversion to federal control, but also the enormous state-by-state variation in how voters cast ballots – variation that is unlike the centralized systems used in many other industrialized democracies, and one that reflects the durability of the United States' zeal for decentralization in government.

Officials say that patchwork of systems helps thwart hackers by limiting common vulnerabilities. But it also may make it tougher for the federal government to respond robustly to protect voting systems.

Ohio is one of 35 states that use machines that leave a paper trail – a feature seen by experts as a vital safeguard of votes’ integrity. In 10 other states, variation goes right down to the county level.

In the letter, Husted said that Ohio had "proactively" sought out help from federal and state officials.

"Voting equipment in Ohio is not in any way connected to the Internet," he told Cleveland.com. "And while computers are used as part of the voting process, there are backups. About 70 percent of the ballots cast this November will be paper ballots that get scanned into a computer. Others are touch-screen voting systems that produce backups."

But as The Christian Science Monitor noted earlier in September, the Verified Voting Foundation says five states – N.J., Delaware, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina – have no paper trail to back up electronic voting. 

The expanded use of electronic voting machines is the result of the Help America Vote Act passed by Congress in 2002, following the close election of 2000, and dedicating nearly $3 billon toward upgrading punchcard voting booths. But cybersecurity experts now warn that these newer electronic systems are vulnerable to hackers.

In August, Department of Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson said that the Obama administration might make the "critical infrastructure" designation in response to breaches of voting rolls in Illinois and Arizona, which cybersecurity experts and administration officials say was the work of hackers affiliated with Russian military and intelligence agencies.

"We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process is critical infrastructure, like the financial sector, like the power grid," Mr. Johnson told The New York Times at the time. "There's a vital national interest in our electoral process."

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