About two dozen elections officials from throughout the United States have applied for security clearance in an effort to help identify and respond to cybersecurity threats.

This step is in response to complaints from state elections officials that the Department of Homeland Security failed to “provide certain information about suspected attempts to hack voter registration systems during the 2016 presidential election,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner spearheaded the effort by penning a letter in July to then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. He asked the Department of Homeland Security to sponsor security clearance for each state’s chief election official to decrease barriers of communication between cybersecurity experts and to those that run elections.

The sponsorship request was necessary because obtaining a government security clearance requires that you be sponsored. That typically is done by corporations, the military or the government – the entity that requires you to have the clearance to perform your job duties. Clearance sponsorships provided by DHS still require the chief election officials to undergo a background investigation.

“I’m very pleased with the outcome and the quick action from the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize the communication between cybersecurity experts and states’ chief election officials,” Warner said in a statement. “If local, state and the federal government are going to work together to protect our elections systems and databases, we need the unrestricted ability to communicate with each other.”

Without security clearance, Homeland Security can’t communicate classified information about election-related cyberthreats to secretaries of state – which are the chief election officials in most states. That means they couldn’t be told of hacking attempts.

The elections officials will have “secret” level clearance, which is access to information that is less sensitive than “top secret” intelligence, but more sensitive than “confidential” intelligence, according to WABE radio.

The Need to Know

Prior to this development, chief election officials were largely in the dark about attempts to break into election systems in the 2016 election. Following the election, federal officials said Russian-backed hackers had targeted systems in 21 states, but didn’t release which states. Instead, DHS authorities told those who had “ownership” of the systems — which in some cases were private vendors or local election offices, NPR reported.

Ten months later, federal officials contacted state election officials whose election systems were targeted for attack by Russian hackers. 

Without proper information, it is difficult for election officials to know what measures should be taken to secure future election processes.

Background Check Backlog

Due to the time it takes to perform security clearance background checks, it is unlikely that the ability for state election officials to obtain security clearance opened up any information pathways in time for the Nov. 7 elections throughout the country.

Chief elections officials likely will receive clearance in time for the 2018 mid-term elections, even though there’s a backlog of 700,000 applications, FCW reported in September.

We shared in a previous blog post that wait times for applicants seeking secret clearance average 105 days, but the goal is to complete them within 40 days.

“One thing applicants can do to help ensure that their investigation doesn’t take even longer is to make sure their applications are filled out correctly and in their entirety,” says security clearance lawyer Catie Young. “Omissions are a common reason applications get kicked back.”