States Are Deploying National Guard Cybersecurity Teams To Prevent Election Interference

Jul 22, 2020

More than 30 states have asked the National Guard to help safeguard the 2020 election from cyber threats.

The officials in charge of making sure America's elections are safe and secure face unprecedented challenges this fall.

The coronavirus pandemic poses a serious health risk to the employees and volunteers, often older, who run local polling places. And states worry the equipment voters handle to fill out their ballots could become a vector for the disease.

To help with those concerns, many states are calling in the National Guard. New Jersey and Kentucky both recently used guard members to assist with operating polling places and processing ballots for the states' primaries. The troops performed their work out of uniform.

But literal viruses aren't the only ones the guard is helping with. In more than 30 states, small teams of cyber security experts will work with local officials to make sure election computer systems aren't compromised by bad actors.

"When we are in the COVID-19 crisis, there is a tendency to drop the ball on the fact that Russia is actively trying to undermine our democracy," said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold.

A U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report last year concluded Russia targeted voting systems in all 50 states in 2016, and officials are worried foreign actors will try again this year.

"The cyber domain is maturing, just like the other air-land-sea-space domains," said Col. George Haynes, chief of cyber operations at the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C.

Haynes helps coordinate the National Guard's election cyber security resources. It's an effort that's picked up steam since 2016.

"We have seen an increase in partnerships, an increase in information sharing, an increase in working together through table-top exercises, through sharing of tactics, techniques, and procedures," Haynes said.

In Colorado, that partnership actually dates back seven years, when the state was developing an online poll book to make it possible for voters to register up to Election Day and vote anywhere in their home county. If a crucial system like that goes down, the whole election process could be thrown into disarray.

The vulnerability drove Colorado to increase its own investment in IT security and draw on outside resources, too.

"Our partnership with the National Guard is just one of many things we do to make sure Coloradans can have confidence in our election results," Griswold said.

Members of the North Carolina National Guard Cyber Security Response Force test equipment at the State Board of Elections prior to the March 2020 primary.
Credit Robert Jordan / North Carolina National Guard

The Colorado National Guard's election support team is made up of a half dozen members, all with backgrounds in programming, corporate security and similar fields.

"Almost everyone on my team has a day-to-day job that we do this full time," said Captain Reece Watkins, cyber-network defense manager for the team. "So it helps us stay in the current workforce and know exactly what's happening in real life."

Watkins said it helps that guard members are used to operating in the private sector, not just on the heavily-protected systems used by the military.

In general, the team's job isn't to fight threats, just to find them. That can be anything from someone spreading misinformation on social media to direct attacks on the state's crucial voter registration database. If they spot something, they pass it on to Colorado's own IT professionals to address. They also review the elections systems themselves for vulnerabilities.

Watkins said there's an extra pleasure in working on elections; it's a chance to be of help preemptively, instead of in response to a disaster.

"A lot of times it's not in the best circumstances," he said of guard missions. "The guard will get called up in forest fires, floods, and stuff like that. So whenever you're seeing the military, it's like, 'something bad is going on.' And that's not what's going on for this."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.