Ohio elections chief orders counties to upgrade security

JULIE CARR SMYTH
FILE - In a Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, Frank Larose speaks at the Ohio Republican Party event, in Columbus, Ohio. Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose ordered county boards of elections on Tuesday, June 11, 2019 to undergo a host of security upgrades that he says will guard against cyberattacks and other threats ahead of the 2020 election. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's elections chief ordered county boards of elections on Tuesday to undergo a host of security upgrades that he says will guard against cyberattacks and other threats ahead of the 2020 election.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose said his goal is to position Ohio as a national leader in election security that goes beyond voting machines to the boards' software systems, email accounts and websites.

"Even the most secure IT environments have lists of things that they want to do to become more secure, so it's not to say that we have some sort of massive vulnerability," he said. "But we know that when we have computer systems and personnel involved, there's always room for improvement."

LaRose's directive expands on the findings of a statewide review conducted last year. He said he is making available up to $12 million in Help America Vote Act money to pay for the upgrades.

The order requires all 88 county boards to request four services from the Department of Homeland Security by July 19: a risk and vulnerability assessment, remote system testing, a communications review and an in-depth hunt for cyber threats.

Each board must also install special intrusion detection devices and a so-called "black box" tool for system security, both provided by LaRose's office.

LaRose also is requiring any boards that aren't already to begin using a new, secure email system, to conduct annual cybersecurity and physical security training sessions and to perform criminal background checks on all permanent employees, vendors and contractors who perform sensitive services. Their websites also must be updated and given uniform ".gov" suffixes, he said.

The improvements must be completed by Jan. 31.

"This is about assuring, when the eyes of the world are on Ohio in 2020, that we will have completed this checklist that each county has, to make sure that our election infrastructure is protected," he said.

Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, said his organization is excited to work with LaRose on an initiative he called "well thought out and comprehensive.

"Certainly there are few topics more on the public mind concerning elections than the accuracy and sanctity of our voting system," Ockerman said in an emailed statement. "We appreciate Secretary LaRose's thoughtful and inclusive process and look forward to learning more about the details of this plan at our statewide conference next week."

The systems subject to the review don't include voting machines, which LaRose noted never interface with the internet and are protected through a separate set of regulations and safeguards.

LaRose said the plan was developed in conjunction with the election officials' association and Homeland Security, to ensure that the timeline was achievable.

He said the order will place significant demands on counties, but he is confident its goals can be achieved. Three county election boards — in Wood, Miami and Hocking counties — piloted the program laid out in the directive and LaRose said each is well on the way to completing the list.

___

Follow Julie Carr Smyth at https://twitter.com/jcarrsmyth