Department of Homeland Security explores 2020 election security, experts testify in Gurnee

GURNEE, Ill. (WLS) -- With the Illinois 2020 Primary just six months away, there are concerns hackers could again try to get inside voting systems in the state, as they attempted in 2016.

The House Homeland Security Committee brought its trappings to north suburban Gurnee Tuesday for a field hearing on threats to election security, ahead of the November 2020 presidential election.

Four witnesses were scheduled to appear, including the Department of Homeland Security's Senior Cybersecurity Advisor Matt Masterson.

In wide ranging remarks, Masterson touted what has been done to improve election security in the last few years, but highlighted the need for more intergovernmental cooperation.

"We recognize the need to increase our support to counties and municipalities who operate elections," he said.

Other witnesses from federal and state agencies outlined what has been learned from cyber intrusions in 2016. Shortly after the 2018 Democratic takeover of the House it passed HR1, a $2.2 billion bill to modernize election systems nationwide. That bill awaits senate approval to become law.

In the meantime, the committee heard what state and non-state actors intend to interfere in 2020.

The Executive Director of the Illinois Board of Elections Steve Sandvoss noted citizens are worried.

"Educated voters are saying, hey, you might see targeted attacks on a voter registration system, but that doesn't mean your vote isn't going to count," Sandvoss said.

Committee Vice-Chair and 14th District Democratic Congresswoman Lauren Underwood urged Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) to bring Washington to the people.

"The president has been silent on this issue," the freshman representative said. "We are looking to Mitch McConnell and President Trump to say that we are making sure every American citizen knows with confidence that their vote will be counted."

Russian nationals tried to hack Illinois voter databases in 2016 as detailed in the Mueller Report. The witnesses said open doors to data leakage have been fixed, but much work remains.

Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL 6) waived onto the committee for this hearing.

"If we provide that information to a person who uses that to fire up a social media disinformation campaign, convince people not to vote, that is where I think we have a real concern and we need to continue to stay very focused on," he noted.

As local input was a key goal of the hearing, Lake County, Ill., Clerk Robin O'Connor told the committee the easiest way to reduce interference is to have the best voting equipment, hopefully paid out of the $2.2 billion the House wants appropriated to address the problem.

So far, only about $250 million of that amount has been distributed nationwide under various federal programs.

"Every county nationally should have paper ballots," O'Connor told the committee. "If something happens electronically we can always go back to paper ballots -- that is the gold standard."

If the hallmark of a healthy democracy is confidence in the conduct of free and fair elections, Tuesday's hearing was witness to a lot of information that that is not a given next year.

Nevertheless, lawmakers say they wanted this hearing, which included no federal republicans even though they were invited , to show they are engaged with people's fears that their votes may not be counted properly a year from now.
Copyright © 2019 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.