Critical Infrastructure: How Election Hacking Concerns Are Creating Federal/State Tensions

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During the 2016 election, reports of attempted hacking of state election systems led many observers to wonder what can be done to protect our country’s voting systems.

In early 2017, before the new Trump Administration took office, the outgoing Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) signed off on a policy adding the nation’s elections system to the list of sectors designated as “critical infrastructure” vital to national security. While there was some initial uncertainty whether or not DHS would continue the designation, it now appears that the policy will remain in place.

In the weeks and months following the designation, states and localities have repeatedly asked DHS for clarification on what exactly “critical infrastructure” entails – including reporting requirements, consultation and other policies that might affect how election officials across the United States do their jobs. Many officials, on both sides of the aisle, are troubled by the lack of clarity about critical infrastructure and how it could shape election policy for both the immediate and foreseeable future.

As the Humphrey School of Public Affairs' Doug Chapin reports, these questions strike at the very heart of the ongoing tension between the federal government and state and local election officials over who should have the lead role in running the nation’s elections. Chapin notes that the dispute over DHS’ plans is just the latest disagreement in this area, which also includes enforcement of the federal Voting Rights Act, questions of the interaction of federal and state laws regarding voter ID and proof of citizenship and requirements for testing and certification of voting equipment.

In this fluid and highly-charged environment, election officials at every level of government need to be aware of both current and potential flashpoints between federal agencies and state/local election offices. Knowing how these tensions affect day-to-day election administration is an essential skill for officials nationwide.

The Humphrey School, among the country’s top 10 professional public policy and planning schools, offers a first-of-its-kind online program to prepare professionals in election administration, including in-depth exploration of federal/state/local relationships in elections. The program is presented in an accessible and stimulating online format that allows students to continue with their current employment while working toward a University certificate.

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