WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday that efforts by his department to aide states in securing their online election systems is not an attempt by the federal government to take over elections.
Johnson, speaking at a forum in Washington, responded to criticism from some conservatives that the department's security concerns could open the door to a power grab by the federal government to nationalize presidential elections, which the Constitution specifically delegates to the individual states.
"There's a lot of chatter on the Internet about what [DHS help] could mean," Johnson said. "It does not mean a federal takeover of state election systems or state elections, or even national elections."
Homeland Security has offered guidance and instructions to individual states and counties that oversee election administration on how best to secure online data and protect individual polling places from the potential threat of hackers. The DHS outreach came after reports that election data in two states, Illinois and Arizona, were compromised by hackers.
In Arizona, suspicious malware was found inside the state's elections data that had been installed after hackers gained access, but was discovered before any damage was done. In Illinois, a more serious breach occurred when hackers gained access to as many as 90,000 voters' registration information, which could lead to potential identity theft, though much of the data such as names, addresses and telephone numbers or email addresses, are already public information.
Additionally, intelligence officials have said they believe Russia was behind a hack of the Democratic National Committee and other party groups, possibly including some staff members of Hillary Clinton's campaign. The hacks led to an embarrassing email release that caused a political uproar on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.
Despite the fallout from the DNC hack, some Republicans have expressed concern that the Obama administration will use it as an excuse to nationalize elections.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said Homeland Security officials are making more of the threat than is warranted in an effort to gain greater influence over state-run election systems.
"It seems like now it's just the D.C. media and the bureaucrats, because of the DNC getting hacked -- they now think our whole system is on the verge of disaster because some Russian's going to tap into the voting system," Kemp, a Republican, told Politico. "And that's just not -- I mean, anything is possible, but it is not probable at all, the way our systems are set up."
Johnson said he does not believe there is a significant likelihood that hackers could widely affect actual election results. He said the diversity inherent in the U.S. election system -- there are 7,000 government entities assisting the 50 unique state systems -- makes it nearly impossible for hackers to have a significant impact in a national vote.
Still, he said Homeland Security will help states take prudent measures to protect their elections systems and individual polling locations which could be compromised in targeted attempts at election tampering.
That does not, however, constitute a federal takeover of elections, Johnson said.
"We don't have the authority to do that," he added. "What we do in Homeland Security, in cybersecurity, is offer assistance when people ask for it. So I've been trying to educate state election officials about what we are in a position to offer them, to help them manage their election systems."