State of­fi­cials at core of 2020 elec­tion se­cu­rity

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By Christina A. Cas­sidy As­so­ci­ated Press

SPRING­FIELD, VA. >> In­side a ho­tel ball­room near the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, a U.S. Army of­fi­cer with bat­tle­field ex­pe­ri­ence told 120 state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials that they may have more in com­mon with mil­i­tary strate­gists than they might think.

These govern­ment of­fi­cials are on the front lines of a dif­fer­ent kind of bat­tle­field — one in which they are help­ing to de­fend American democ­racy by en­sur­ing free and fair elec­tions.

“Ev­ery­one in this room is part of a big­ger ef­fort, and it’s only to­gether are we go­ing to get through this,” the of­fi­cer said.

That of­fi­cer and other past and present na­tional se­cu­rity lead­ers had a mes­sage to con­vey to of­fi­cials from 24 states gath­ered for a re­cent train­ing held by a Har­vard-af­fil­i­ated democ­racy project: They are the linch­pins in ef­forts to de­fend U.S. elec­tions from an at­tack by Rus­sia, China or other for­eign threats, and de­vel­op­ing a mil­i­tary mind­set will help them pro­tect the in­tegrity of the vote.

The need for such train­ing re­flects how elec­tions se­cu­rity wor­ries have height­ened in the af­ter­math of the 2016 elec­tion, when Russian mil­i­tary agents tar­geted vot­ing sys­tems across the coun­try as part of a multi-pronged ef­fort to in­flu­ence the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Un­til then, the job of lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials could had been de­scribed as akin to a wed­ding plan­ner who keeps track of who will be show­ing up on Elec­tion Day and en­sures all the equip­ment and sup­plies are in place.

Now, these of­fi­cials are on the front lines. The fed­eral govern­ment will be on high alert, gath­er­ing in­tel­li­gence and scan­ning sys­tems for sus­pi­cious cy­ber ac­tiv­ity as they look to de­fend the na­tion’s elec­tions. Mean­while, it will be the state and county of

fi­cials who will be on the ground charged with iden­ti­fy­ing and deal­ing with any hos­tile acts.

“It’s an­other level of war,” said Jesse Sali­nas, the chief elec­tions of­fi­cial in Yolo County, Cal­i­for­nia, who at­tended the train­ing. “You only at­tack things that you feel are a threat to you, and our democ­racy is a threat to a lot of these na­tion-states that are get­ting in­volved try­ing to un­der­mine it. We have to fight back, and we have to pre­pare.”

Sali­nas brought four of his em­ploy­ees with him to the train­ing, which was part of the De­fend­ing Dig­i­tal Democ­racy project based at the Belfer Cen­ter for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs at the Har­vard Kennedy School. The group has been work­ing ac­tively with for­mer and cur­rent mil­i­tary, na­tional se­cu­rity, po­lit­i­cal and com­mu­ni­ca­tions ex­perts — many of whom ded­i­cate their time af­ter work and on week­ends — to de­velop train­ing and man­u­als for state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials. Those in­volved with lead­ing the train­ing asked for anonymity be­cause of their sen­si­tive po­si­tions.

The project’s lat­est play­book fo­cuses on bring­ing mil­i­tary best prac­tices to run­ning Elec­tion Day op­er­a­tions, en­cour­ag­ing state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials to adopt a “bat­tle staff” com­mand struc­ture with clear re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures for deal­ing with mi­nor is­sues. The project is also pro­vid­ing of­fi­cials with a free state-of-the-art in­ci­dent track­ing sys­tem.

Eric Rosen­bach, co-di­rec­tor of the Belfer Cen­ter and a for­mer U.S. Army in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who served as chief of staff to De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, told the group gath­ered for the train­ing that it “shouldn’t be lost on you that this is a very mil­i­tary-like model.”

“Let’s be hon­est about it,” Rosen­bach said. “If democ­racy is un­der at­tack and you guys are the ones at the pointy end of the spear, why shouldn’t we train that way? Why shouldn’t we try to give you the help that comes with that model and try to build you up and do all we can?”

In­struc­tors stressed the need for elec­tion of­fi­cials to be on the look­out for ef­forts to dis­rupt the vote and en­sure that com­mu­ni­ca­tions are flow­ing up from coun­ties to the state, down from states to the coun­ties, as well a s up and down to the fed­eral govern­ment and across states.

Piec­ing to­gether seem­ingly dis­parate ac­tions hap­pen­ing in real-time across ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tions will al­low the na­tion to de­fend it­self, said Robby Mook, Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign man­ager in 2016. Mook co-founded the De­fend­ing Dig­i­tal Democ­racy project with Matt Rhoades, Repub­li­can nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney’s 2012 cam­paign man­ager.

“Find a way to in­put data in a con­sis­tent, ef­fi­cient and re­li­able way to en­sure you know what is go­ing on and pre­vent things from fall­ing through the cracks,” Mook told the elec­tion of­fi­cials. “You got to rise above just putting out fires.”

At the train­ing were of­fi­cials from Cal­i­for­nia, Colorado, Ge­or­gia, North Carolina, Ore­gon, Ten­nessee, West Vir­ginia and other states. In one ex­er­cise, elec­tion of­fi­cials were paired up as ei­ther a state or county un­der an Elec­tion Day sce­nario, charged with log­ging in­ci­dents and try­ing to piece to­gether what turned out to be four dif­fer­ent co­or­di­nated cam­paigns to dis­rupt vot­ing.

“One of the big take­aways was just how the lack of one piece of in­for­ma­tion mov­ing up from the coun­ties to the state or mov­ing from the states to coun­ties, if ei­ther of those things don’t hap­pen, it can have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact,” said Stephen Trout, elec­tions di­rec­tor for Ore­gon.

Trout said he would move quickly to ac­quire, cus­tomize and im­ple­ment the in­ci­dent track­ing sys­tem, which would be an up­grade from the pa­per process cur­rently in use. Dave Tack­ett, chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer for the West Vir­ginia Sec­re­tary of State’s Of­fice, said he will rec­om­mend some struc­tur­ing changes at his state op­er­a­tions cen­ter, in­clud­ing bring­ing key per­son­nel into the room and in­cor­po­rat­ing el­e­ments of the in­ci­dent track­ing sys­tem like map­ping and the abil­ity to as­sign peo­ple to spe­cific in­ci­dents.

“Events like to­day are help­ing us zero in on how to struc­ture our­selves bet­ter, how to re­ally think in a dif­fer­ent mind­set so that we can carry out all the dif­fer­ent tasks that have to be done with elec­tions,” said Karen Brin­son Bell, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the North Carolina Board of Elec­tions. “(It’s) the im­por­tance of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the im­por­tance of hav­ing stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures in place so all the i’s are dot­ted and the t’s crossed ahead of time and you are pre­pared for the un­known.”

ALEX BRAN­DON—AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Mon­day, Dec. 16, 2019, photo, Mandy Vigil, from New Mex­ico, works dur­ing an ex­er­cise run by mil­i­tary and na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials, for state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials to sim­u­late dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios for the 2020 elec­tions, in Spring­field, Va. These govern­ment of­fi­cials are on the front lines of a dif­fer­ent kind of high-stakes bat­tle­field, one in which they are help­ing to de­fend American democ­racy by en­sur­ing free and fair elec­tions.

ALEX BRAN­DON—AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Mon­day, Dec. 16, 2019, photo, Karen Bren­son Bell, from North Carolina, lis­tens dur­ing an ex­er­cise run by mil­i­tary and na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials, for state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials to sim­u­late dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios for the 2020 elec­tions, in Spring­field, Va. These govern­ment of­fi­cials are on the front lines of a dif­fer­ent kind of high-stakes bat­tle­field, one in which they are help­ing to de­fend American democ­racy by en­sur­ing free and fair elec­tions.

ALEX BRAN­DON—AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Mon­day, Dec. 16, 2019, photo, a book­let is held up dur­ing an ex­er­cise run by mil­i­tary and na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials, for state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials to sim­u­late dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios for the 2020 elec­tions, in Spring­field, Va.

ALEX BRAN­DON—AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Mon­day, Dec. 16, 2019, photo, the Bat­tle Staff Play­book is seen on the ta­ble dur­ing an ex­er­cise run by mil­i­tary and na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials, for state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials to sim­u­late dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios for the 2020 elec­tions, Mon­day, Dec. 16, 2019, in Spring­field, Va.

ALEX BRAN­DON—AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Mon­day, Dec. 16, 2019, photo, a trainer ges­tures to the screen dur­ing an ex­er­cise run by mil­i­tary and na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials, for state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials to sim­u­late dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios for the 2020 elec­tions, in Spring­field, Va.

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