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Sen. Murante says Trump team has eased his fears about states’ election systems being labeled ‘critical infrastructure’

October 13, 2017 GMT

LINCOLN — A state senator who had raised concerns about federal intervention in Nebraska’s election system said Thursday that Trump administration officials have assuaged his fears.

State Sen. John Murante of Gretna said a recent letter from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security assured him the department “has no intention now or in the future” to interfere with state election processes.

The letter, sent on behalf of Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke, responded to a March letter from Murante, who chairs the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

In the earlier letter, Murante called for federal officials to reverse an Obama-era decision labeling election systems as “critical infrastructure.”

He said the designation raised the potential of federal intervention in state election systems, which would violate state sovereignty and increase security risks.

The response said federal officials plan to leave the designation in place. The letter stressed that the goal of doing so is to provide state, local and tribal governments with priority assistance in managing election security risks.

“Now more than ever, our nation must ensure the integrity of our nation’s election processes and the department’s mission is to provide assistance as needed and requested,” the letter said.

But it also said that participation by states is “entirely voluntary” and that the designation does not allow federal officials to access state systems without explicit, legal agreements.

Secretary of State John Gale said federal officials clarified issues concerning the “critical infrastructure” designation several months ago.

The response to Murante echoes assurances offered in a March 6 letter from DHS to the Connecticut secretary of state.

Gale said his office has been in regular contact with federal officials about options for election security and the best ways to coordinate federal and state efforts.

“We appreciate their attention to Nebraska as we move into the 2018 election cycle,” he said.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced the “critical infrastructure” designation on Jan. 8, in the waning days of the Obama administration.

The security of election systems became a major issue last year. Federal officials have notified various states of attempts to hack into election equipment. Nebraska was not among them.

Murante said he has confidence that Nebraska’s election system, which uses paper ballots and scanning machines that are not connected to the Internet, is safe from outside intrusion.

He said federal assistance would be welcome, however, in paying for updated election technology.

Equipment purchased through the federal Help America Vote Act is now reaching the end of its life and states do not have the money for replacement technology, he said.

Gale said he requested federal funding in a July letter to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Election Integrity. He sought money both for new election technology and for cybersecurity defense systems.

However, he said he doesn’t know if any federal money will be forthcoming.

Murante, a GOP candidate for state treasurer, said he appreciated the federal government’s willingness to help Nebraska ensure that its elections are safe and secure and that no illegal voting happens in the state.

“We also appreciate that that is done on a voluntary basis, not with federal mandates,” he said.

But he said he wants to see legislation ensuring that future administrations continue to make participation with federal election assistance voluntary.

Murante also said state voter identification legislation is needed to protect Nebraska elections from voter fraud.

He said he plans to pursue the issue again next year. His proposal for a constitutional amendment on voter identification failed in the face of a filibuster this year.

“It is long overdue in the state of Nebraska,” Murante said.

martha.stoddard@owh.com, 402-473-9583