What is the CRC’s Election Security Improvement Project?

Published 11:00 am Thursday, October 6, 2022

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FARMVILLE – Two years ago, the Commonwealth Regional Council (CRC) received grant funding to improve election security around this region. With local, state and federal elections coming up next month, work still continues on what’s being called the Election Security Improvement Project.

The project got started in September 2020, when the CRC received a State Homeland Security Program (SHSP) grant. They used the money to focus on cyber security improvements for the election systems in Amelia, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Lunenburg and Prince Edward counties.

“Virginia considers election security to be a top priority,” said Andrea Gaines, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Elections. “These efforts have made a considerable impact on the ability for Virginia to prevent, mitigate and respond to cyber incidents targeting the integrity of its election system. Virginians should be confident that their votes will be counted accurately and that state and local election officials are taking all necessary steps to ensure the integrity of elections in the Commonwealth.”

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The idea was to update each county’s election systems in order to bring them into compliance with Virginia House Bill (HB) 2178. Signed into law by former Gov. Ralph Northam in 2019, the bill requires counties to update their election security technology, develop security plans and procedures. If a city or county doesn’t keep up to date with all three, the Virginia Department of Elections would be authorized to limit their access to the Commonwealth’s voter registration system. Knowing that each of the communities in this region were smaller and therefore didn’t have a big staff to implement these changes, the CRC helped with the work in each case.

What is the Election Security Improvement Project?

Local election boards are required to develop and update annually written plans and procedures to ensure the safety and integrity of the supporting technologies. They are also required to report annually to the Department of Elections on their election security plans and procedures.

“Per HB 2178, the requirements are broken out into 21 different areas,” said Todd Fortune, deputy director of the CRC. “The localities covered under our grant had addressed some of those areas, and this grant (helps) them address other areas.”

To make this project happen, the CRC has retained Assura Inc. to assist the local registrars with security measures outlined in the grant. Assura Inc. is a cybersecurity firm that specializes in election security based out of Richmond. The work includes a compliance assessment, technical services including email security, security training for local staff and threat monitoring and response. This should be done by Dec. 31.

As far as why it’s still being worked on, Fortune said there was a nine-month delay in getting the CRC under contract for the grant. A press release from the Virginia Department of Emergency Measures (VDEM) dated Sept. 16, 2020 shows FEMA placed a hold on funding for projects that met one of four national priority investment areas, including Enhancing Cyber Security which this grant fell under. The document doesn’t say why funding was put on hold at the time. This pushed back the grant agreement to July 2021. As a result, work will run for 21 months, closing the grant out by March 31, 2023.

According to Shawn Howard, I.T. director for Cumberland County, the changes being done will not affect the voter’s experience.

“These updates are just to protect the data and make sure everything is secure,” Howard said.