Major Gen. Richard Hayes, Illinois National Guard
While a Russian hack into the state's voter database didn't alter election results in 2016, the threat of a more serious attack this year motivated Illinois election officials to partner with one of the most highly-trained cyber security forces around to deal in real time with potential breaches.
The Illinois State Board of Elections announced last week that the Illinois National Guard, which has hundreds of cyber security technicians on hand, will be available on election day Nov. 6 to report to local election offices anywhere in the state within one hour to diagnose and stop suspected cyber attacks.
Election board spokesman Matt Dietrich said the partnership is not unusual, as approximately 20 other states have come to rely on the Guard because of their "tremendous" technical and cyber resources by way of the Department of Defense.
"As we were shoring up our cyber security for this upcoming election we were looking at all options," Dietrich said. "Basically everybody involved wanted the best cyber security resources available, especially due to the warning from Homeland Security that Russia tried to interfere before and they're very likely to be back and do similar things in 2016. The National Guard is in the best position to act against (potential threats)."
He said the elections board doesn't envision calls for service will involve Guardsmen going into precinct polling places. The board and guardsmen are "very sensitive" to their role and won't be proceeding in a "militarized" capacity.
"In a very far-fetched scenario there could be an incident at a precinct polling place," Dietrich said. "But we see this as something as dealing with a ransom ware threat, or someone that has placed false information on the county clerk's site, or placed false unofficial results."
If breaches by foreign agents are suspected or detected, an investigation would be launched through the state Attorney General who would work with the
FBI and Homeland Security, Dietrich said.
Election authorities that will benefit the most from having the National Guard at their backs will be smaller, rural ones with fewer IT resources, said Andy Carruthers, a State Board of Elections trustee and attorney at HeplerBroom in Edwardsville.
"We don't have as much concern for Chicago or Cook County Clerk's office," he said. "But many counties in our part of the state simply don't have the resources. Some may not have an IT department."
In Madison County, where he lives, Carruthers said, "we are very fortunate we have the resources... and more than adequate reserve staff to deal with (threats)."
Carruthers said the 2016 Russian hack breached a voter database containing information that would normally be available to the public through a legitimate records request, but the way the "bad actors" went about it was "highly illegal."