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SPRINGFIELD — Illinois made substantial progress in securing its election systems since Russian government officials hacked into its voter-registration database in 2016, but more needs to be done to protect those systems heading into the 2020 elections.

That was the message two Illinois election officials — State Board of Elections Director Steve Sandvoss and Lake County Clerk Robin O’Connor — delivered to a congressional committee Tuesday.

“Cybersecurity is an ongoing, ever-escalating process that doesn’t have an end date, and as such there will be an ongoing need for funds to maintain the program,” Sandvoss told the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee.

That panel had a special meeting — known as a “field hearing” — in the village of Gurnee, which is part of the state’s 14th congressional district in Lake County. That’s the home territory of the committee’s vice chair, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood.

Earlier this year, the House Intelligence Committee reported Illinois was one of 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian government hackers in 2016. In the Prairie State, the hackers were able to penetrate the entire statewide voter registration database and, by the end of 2018, had accessed as many as 200,000 voter registration records, according to the report.

“Russian cyber actors were in a position to delete or change voter data, but the committee is not aware of any evidence that they did so,” the report stated.

Russia hacking and 2020

An intelligence community assessment concluded the hacks were part of a broader Russian campaign to influence the elections to the detriment of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and they were prepared to launch a social media campaign to undermine Americans’ faith in the election if Clinton had won.

The report also contained a warning about the next presidential election, noting: “If Russia’s preferred candidate does not prevail in 2020, the Russians may seek to delegitimize the election.”

In 2018, the State Board of Elections launched what it calls the “Cyber Navigator” program. With $13.2 million in federal grant funding distributed through the Help America Vote Act, the agency was able to upgrade its security systems and hire nine individuals — the “navigators” — to consult with local election officials throughout the state and help them address their own vulnerabilities.

O’Connor said that money helped Lake County secure its election systems, but added the county will not let its guard down.

“The threat of election interference, we believe, all of us who are here, is constant and requires proactive monitoring,” she said.

‘Don’t have time to wait’

That $13.2 million was Illinois’ share of $380 million Congress appropriated nationwide for election security in 2018. But now, as the 2020 elections approach, the U.S. House and Senate have been at loggerheads over how much to spend for additional election security.

The Democrat-controlled House has authorized $600 million, while the Republican-controlled Senate has agreed to just $250 million.

“Now, the 2020 election is right around the corner and adversaries are already working to interfere,” Underwood said. “We don’t have time to wait.”

But Elizabeth Howard of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program said even the $600 million contained in the House plan wouldn’t be enough. She estimated the cost of securing the entire country’s election system at $2.2 billion.

That would encompass $750 million to replace “antiquated paperless voting machines” throughout the country, including $175 million in Illinois alone; $100 million for post-election audits over the next five years; $500 million for voter registration cybersecurity improvements; and $830 million to extend cyber navigator programs like the one in Illinois nationwide.

“In short, we know what we need to do to harden our infrastructure, but we’re lacking in leadership and funding,” Howard said. “Illinois election officials are as acutely aware of the threats facing our election systems as anyone. The successful attacks on Illinois’ voter registration database serve as an unwelcome alarm to election officials everywhere, and Illinois’ efforts, including their successes and struggles, are instructive when analyzing the current national election security landscape.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation. Its mission: to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.