U.S. Reps. Underwood, Casten address Illinois election security concerns

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, speaks at a meeting Nov. 6.
U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, speaks at a meeting Nov. 6.

U.S. Reps. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, and Sean Casten, D-Downers Grove, are among the suburban Illinois lawmakers who raised questions about election security during an Oct. 15 field hearing in Illinois’ 14th Congressional District.

Also in attendance for the committee meeting, held at Gurnee Village Hall, was U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District, Matt Masterson of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Steve Sandvoss of the Illinois Board of Elections, Elizabeth Howard of the Brennan Center for Justice and Robin O’Connor of the Lake County Clerk’s Office.

Among the resources for election officials reviewed during the field hearing were the Cyber Navigator Program, election security grants and legislative reform.

Underwood said it makes sense for the Homeland Security Committee to convene in her district.

“Congress has recognized the challenges that come with improving decades-old election infrastructure and has provided critical funding and assistance to states since our state was hacked in 2016,” she said.

The committee’s hearing was a first for Illinois’ 14th Congressional District, officials said. There are 108 election authorities in Illinois.

U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed foreign interference occurred in the 2016 elections, officials said. In Illinois, this resulted in foreign actors accessing the records of 76,000 Illinois voters.

Casten questioned to what extent proportionally authorities should prioritize concerns for targeted voter suppression or the changing of votes.

“We think about it as a hybrid threat,” Masterson said.

Underwood asked what benefits the Cyber Navigator Program gives county election officials with limited budgets.

Sandvoss said the navigators provide to election authorities a new way of thinking, even those with full-time information technology department staff.

Not all county election offices in Illinois are equipped with an IT department.

“I think what the navigators are doing is providing that education to the local jurisdictions and the ones that have more limited resources, which is to say they have no IT department at all. I think they are the ones that are provided the most benefit,” Sandvoss said. “The ones being most vulnerable, it goes back to the chain being as strong as its weakest link.”

Under a decentralized voting system, local election authorities are afforded the discretion to decide when to repair election equipment and when it’s best to make a new investment.

Sandvoss said it’s up to election officials to work together to ensure the integrity of the system.

“You don’t want to be that county on election day,” he said.

Underwood said she hopes more lawmakers will take action to help ensure greater election security. There are some election security projects, which have gone unfunded to date, officials said.

Underwood, who is a member of the Task Force Sentry – a bipartisan group of lawmakers who are working to develop solutions to protect the U.S. political system from attack by foreign adversaries – has taken action to back legislation such as House Resolution 1, which aims to improve voting system security. The bill consists of a package of reforms requiring the Department of Homeland Security to maintain election systems as infrastructure, perform regular testing of voting systems, provide resources for states to conduct post-election audits and update legacy election systems.

Thompson and Underwood currently serve as chairman and vice chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee, respectively.

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