After 2016 hack, Illinois says election system secure

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Illinois officials assured voters Tuesday that their Nov. 6 tallies "will be securely counted" following a data breach that's part of the Justice Department's investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

Board of Elections Chairman William Cadigan and a group of state and local officials - including Illinois National Guard leaders - said in Chicago that beefed-up measures to monitor and spot cybersecurity risks will ensure a fair and free election.

"We're as prepared as we ought to be right now, given the information we have," Cadigan said. "People should get out and vote because your vote is going to count and at the end of the day, we believe it's going to be securely counted."

The board hired three cybersecurity experts to watch elections and voter-data systems for irregularities, Cadigan said, including one housed at the Illinois State Police Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center. Local elections administrators have undergone rigorous training and the National Guard is on call for emergencies.

Officials discovered in summer 2016 that a hacker had downloaded information on up 76,000 Illinois voters in what federal authorities allege was a concentrated attack by Russian intelligence agents, but whether they penetrated states other than Illinois has never been determined.

State officials notified those affected and there's no indication that voting that fall was affected. But the Illinois breach and its potential damage was evident when it formed part of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment last July of a dozen Russian intelligence agents for hacking. The indictment alleged that the perpetrators stole information from as many as 500,000 voters.

Illinois authorities believe Mueller's investigators are counting even fragments of personal data that were not complete enough to require them to alert a voter.

Officials also noted that despite electronic voting in Illinois, state law requires that each vote leave behind a paper receipt, so any vote that is disrupted electronically can still be audited.

Logan County Clerk and Recorder Sally Turner said county and municipal elections administrators have met several times in the past year for extensive training on spotting and interpreting cyber threats.

"We want our communities and our voters to know that we as election officials in Illinois are focused on protecting our systems with rigorous attention to cybersecurity," Turner said.

Major Gen. Richard Hayes, Illinois' adjutant general, said Defense Department-trained analysts with the National Guard are on call. In case of catastrophe, they're quickly mobilized.

"If someone tries to disrupt the election on Election Day, we can have a guardsman dispatched within an hour anywhere in Illinois," elections board member Chuck Scholl said. "We'll have boots on the ground in whatever county, whatever election authority that's affected, within an hour."