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Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: Florida becomes hot spot in the election security wars

By Joseph Marks

with Tonya Riley

Florida, which is a perennial swing state in presidential elections, is now shaping up as a battleground over election security efforts during the pandemic.
Officials there have yet to say whether they'll accept $20 million in federal money that lawmakers and experts say is vital to manage a surge in voting by mail and other changes brought on by the novel coronavirus.
The money is Florida’s share of $400 million in election security funding Congress included in the coronavirus stimulus bill in March. But Congress also mandated states match that money with 20 percent of their own funds and it’s not clear whether Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the state legislature are prepared to foot the $4 million bill.
Florida doesn’t have a great record of administering elections during normal times, so during a pandemic the lack of planning and the lack of additional resources could be catastrophic,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), told me.
Florida is the only remaining state that hasn’t signaled its intentions regarding the federal money. If officials there don’t accept it, lawmakers fear that could lead to a dramatic failure on Election Day that throws the winner of the presidential election or control of Congress into question and plays into the hands of U.S. adversaries that want to undermine confidence in democracy.
It could also endanger Florida voters, many of whom are elderly and more vulnerable to the virus, and embarrass the state, which has a history of election problems dating back to the 2000 recount between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The Sunshine State also looms large for election security hawks because Russian hackers compromised voter records in two counties there in 2016, though there’s no evidence they changed any votes.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.). (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Murphy is a lead author of a bipartisan letter from 13 Florida members of Congress urging the governor to accept the federal money as quickly as possible. Florida county election supervisors also wrote to DeSantis last month warning the state is unprepared for the surge in voting by mail and other likely changes stemming from the pandemic.
If Florida turns down some or all of the federal money it will join only two other states that have done so. 
Utah requested just $2 million of its $4.3 million in available election funding. Oklahoma plans to request part of its $5.5 million in available funding later this month, State Election Board Public Information Officer Misha Mohr told me. But she didn’t say precisely how much the state will request.
Offices for DeSantis and Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee (R) did not respond to requests for comment about the funding.
All other states have requested their full funding amount, according to election officials and records from the federal Election Assistance Commission. That’s despite widespread complaints from state officials, election security advocates and congressional Democrats that the match requirement is overly burdensome when state budgets are already squeezed to the breaking point by the pandemic.
It’s remarkable that more than 95 percent of jurisdictions are finding money for these matches when their budgets are so stressed,” Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, told me. “In normal times you want states and counties to be as invested in elections as possible, but these aren’t normal times.”
The Brennan Center has said it will cost about $2 billion to run elections safely and securely during the pandemic. It released an analysis yesterday showing many states will need to begin inking contracts as early as this month or next to be prepared for those elections.

Staff of the Franklin County Board of Elections take measures to sanitize voting stations and provisional ballot envelope stations. (Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)
Congressional Democrats have floated the idea of rolling back the matching requirement in future stimulus bills. But that's drawn little interest from Republicans. 
Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) introduced a bill yesterday to repeal the match outright. But Democrats’ main focus when it comes to elections has been negotiating more funding in future stimulus bills so repealing the matching money is likely to be a lower priority.
Democrats initially pushed for $4 billion in election funding in the last stimulus bill, but settled for one-tenth that amount. They’re planning another push in the next stimulus, but are likely to face fierce opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans – especially if they try to mandate specific security protections, which Republicans have long opposed, such as that states offer universal voting by mail.
Republicans on the House Administration Committee blasted Democrats’ efforts yesterday as “a federal takeover of our elections under the guise of ‘helping states’ expand their vote by mail systems.”
Utah “had to get creative” to find enough matching money even for the $2 million it did accept from the federal government, the state’s elections director, Justin Lee, told me. 
The office used about $400,000 in unspent money meant to pay for its presidential primary elections so it didn’t have to seek extra funds from the state legislature, he said.
The new funding is less vital for Utah because it’s one of five states where residents vote almost entirely by mail. That means it already has a lot of the voting equipment other states will need to purchase  such as industrial envelope sorters and stuffers and stockpiles of oversize envelopes.
For other states that are looking to dramatically increase voting by mail, however, the matching requirement is an extra burden on an already monumental task, he said.
“If someone’s looking to shift to voting by mail by November, the best time to start would have been two years ago,” he said. “The second-best time to start would be right now. The longer someone waits, the tougher it’s going to be.”

The keys

More congressional work is going remote despite hesitancy among leaders. 

Photo by Anna Moneymaker/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10639078ab) Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., speaks at a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests.

McConnell has been adamant the chamber will continue to meet in person during the pandemic while exercising precautions including social distancing.
But circumstances are nevertheless forcing some work to go digital. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will remotely chair a hearing of the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee today after being exposed to the virus. White House health officials will also appear remotely including Anthony Fauci, the Trump administration’s top infectious disease expert .
House Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to institute a rule change allowing some members to vote remotely by forwarding their votes to colleagues in Washington, but lawmakers are likely to remain out of town until at least Friday. Discussions about the rule change are “ongoing,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said, per Politico.
Democrats are also working on a plan to allow delegates to participate remotely in the Democratic National Convention, Michael Scherer reports.
A top cybersecurity commission may update its report in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The pandemic has uncovered cybersecurity concerns that weren’t stressed as much as they could have been in the initial report of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, Politico’s Morning Cybersecurity reports.
One possible area for new recommendations is helping state and local governments securely manage working remotely during future pandemics, Politico reported. Commissioners are also considering recommendations about combating disinformation that doesn’t directly affect the government but could create public panic.
The commission, which was co-chaired by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), released its report to fanfare from the cybersecurity community in March but has struggled to stay in the public eye since the pandemic hit. The group described its goal as releasing something similar to the 9/11 Commission report but before a 9/11-level cybersecurity disaster struck.
Lawmakers on the commission say they plan to introduce legislation this year that will cover a substantial portion of the report’s recommendations.
Twitter will start labeling misleading or disputed coronavirus tweets – even from President Trump.

President Trump. (Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg News)

The new labels will apply in situations where the risk of harm is not severe enough to remove the tweet, but could still confuse people, the company said in a blog post. It's the latest effort from tech companies to expand their arsenal of tools to fight an influx of misinformation about the coronavirus.
Twitter’s move follows weeks of criticism that tech companies have not been proactive enough in stopping Trump's false or misleading claims about the virus. The company says the policy will apply retroactively to tweets sent before it created the label.
The labels will alert people that the information in the tweet conflicts with public health experts' guidance before they view it. They'll link to a Twitter-curated page with more information or another trusted external source with explanations about the claims made in the tweet.
The new approach could eventually extend to other topics, the company said. Twitter already uses a similar label to alert people to manipulated media, such as deceptively edited videos.

Government scan

U.S. government officials are moving closer to warning that China is trying to hack U.S. vaccine makers working on coronavirus treatments. 

A researcher reaches for a vial in a lab. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

The warning would also call out “’nontraditional actors’ such as Chinese students and researchers in the United States,” Ellen Nakashima reports. Asked about the reports during his daily news conference, President Trump replied sarcastically “So, what else is new with China?” Fox News's Lucas Tomlinson:
"So what else is new with China?" President Trump asks sarcastically when asked about Beijing's reported attempts to hack and steal coronavirus vaccine research from U.S.
— Lucas Tomlinson (@LucasFoxNews) May 11, 2020
More government cybersecurity news:

The information technology office supporting the Texas judicial system was hit by a ransomware attack that took down websites and interrupted legal proceedings. 
The Hill

Industry report

The ATM maker Diebold Nixdorf was hit with a ransomware attack that disrupted some of its operations.

Workers board up an ATM machine. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
The company, which is the largest maker of cash-dispensing machines in the United States, said the hack only affected its corporate network, not any ATM machines or customer information, Brian Krebs reports.
More industry news:

Metadata, including location data, can out sources and deanonymize whistleblowers.

Chatbooks, a photo-printing startup is alerting its users about a data breach in which hackers stole some customers’ personal information.

Chat room

George Washington University’s National Security Archive has put together a timeline of its trove of public information about U.S. military cybersecurity operations.
In an effort to make the entire collection of USCYBERCOM documents easily accessible, today we are publishing a timeline of all primary source government documents produced by or directly pertaining to USCYBERCOM from our research.
— NSArchive Cyber Vault (@NSArchiveCyber) May 11, 2020


  • The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee will host a virtual roundtable to discuss U.S. cybersecurity and the Cyberspace Solarium Commission Report on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee will host a hearing on the state of broadband amid the covid-19 pandemic on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
  • The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace will hold an online event on “next steps for encryption policy” at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
  • The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation will host a webinar “Mind the Gap: A Design for a New Energy Technology Commercialization Foundation” on Wednesday at noon.
  • The Open Technology Institute will host an event on the role of technology in pandemic response efforts on May 14 at 11:30 a.m.


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