When You Cast Your Ballot In 2020, Colorado’s National Guard Will Be Patrolling The Digital Frontier

Cyber Team Guard's Election Network
Maj. Darin Overstreet/U.S. Air National Guard
Members of the Colorado National Guard’s Task Force Cyber help monitor network traffic and advise the Secretary of State’s office, Nov. 6, 2018. The Guard is once again helping to protect the elections against cyberattacks in June and November 2020.

The officials in charge of making sure America’s elections are safe and secure face unprecedented challenges in November.

The coronavirus pandemic poses a serious health risk to the employees and volunteers, often older, who run local polling places. States worry the equipment voters handle to fill out their ballots could become a vector for the disease.

To help with those concerns, many states are calling in the National Guard. But literal viruses aren’t the only ones election officials are turning to the guard for help with. They are there for the digital kind too.

In more than 30 states — Colorado included — small teams of cybersecurity experts will work with local officials to make sure the computer systems elections rely on aren’t compromised by bad actors. 

“When we are in the COVID-19 crisis, there is a tendency to drop the ball on the fact that Russia is actively trying to undermine our democracy,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold. A 2019 Senate Intelligence Committee report concluded Russia targeted voting systems in all 50 states in 2016, and officials are worried it will likely try again this year.

“The cyber domain is maturing, just like the other air-land-sea-space domains,” said Col. George Haynes, chief of cyber operations at the National Guard Bureau in Washington D.C.

Haynes helps coordinate the National Guard’s election cybersecurity resources. It’s an effort that’s really picked up steam since 2016.

“We have seen an increase in partnerships, an increase in information sharing, an increase in working together through table-top exercises, through sharing of tactics, techniques, and procedures,” Haynes said.

The partnership in Colorado actually dates back seven years, according to the Colorado National Guard, to a time when the state was developing an online poll book to make it possible for voters to register up to Election Day and vote anywhere in their home county. Take down a crucial system like that and the whole election process could be thrown into disarray. The vulnerability drove Colorado to increase its own investment in IT security, and to draw on outside resources too.

“Our partnership with the National Guard is just one of many things we do to make sure Coloradans can have confidence in our election results,” Griswold said,

This year Colorado guard’s election support team is made up of a half dozen members, all with backgrounds in programming, corporate security and similar fields. 

“Almost everyone on my team has a day-to-day job that we do this full time. So it helps us stay in the current workforce and know exactly what’s happening in real life,” said Capt. Reece Watkins, cyber-network defense manager for the team.

Watkins noted it’s helpful that guard members are used to operating in the private sector, not just on the heavily-protected systems used by the military.

In general, the team’s job isn’t to fight threats, just to find them. That can be anything from someone spreading misinformation on social media to direct attacks on the state’s crucial voter registration database. What they spot, they pass on to Colorado’s own IT professionals to address. They also review the elections systems themselves for vulnerabilities.

Watkins said there’s an extra pleasure in working on elections; it’s a chance to be of help preemptively, instead of in response to a disaster.

“A lot of times it’s not in the best circumstances,” he said of guard missions. “The guard will get called up in forest fires, floods and stuff like that. So whenever you’re seeing the military, it’s like, ‘something bad is going on.’ And that’s not what’s going on for this.”