SPRINGFIELD — Illinois is working to better protect itself from hacking ahead of the state's March primary, the state's top elections official said Wednesday, noting that federal authorities have warned that the threat of further Russian interference before November's midterm elections "is still very real."
Russian agents targeted elections systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 election and two states, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Illinois noticed its voter registration databases were breached in July 2016. Hackers accessed 76,000 active Illinois voter registration records but were unable to add, change or delete any data. The state contacted the FBI shortly thereafter and contacted affected voters by mail.
Steven Sandvoss, who heads the State Board of Elections, said at a news conference Wednesday that state officials have been working with DHS to bolster Illinois electronic database and that they told him the threat of another Russian attack "is still very real."
Election officials are "constantly" updating their technology and equipment, and starting this year, state employees are required to undergo annual cybersecurity training from the Department of Innovation and Technology, which is focused on preventing phishing attacks like the ones used against Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
Illinois is one of 14 states that requested a risk assessment of its electronic database. Sandvoss confirmed that an assessment has been scheduled, but he couldn't say if the test, which typically takes two weeks, will be completed before the state's March 20 primary election.
Sandvoss was also granted federal clearance in February, after months of waiting, to attend a national classified briefing with Homeland Security and election officials across the country.
He said federal officials maintained in the briefing that communication with state officials is crucial to defending against any election interference. DHS also noted that states were also told to look out for "general efforts to disrupt the elections process," including on social media, Sandvoss said.
Despite the federal support, local election officials see themselves as the front line against a possible hack.
"It is really our responsibility at the local level to maintain the accuracy and the integrity of the registration system," said Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray.