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Turf war: DOD v. National Guard on election security

Illustration of green army figurines surrounding a paper ballot going into a red election slot over a blue background.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Two Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would provide $50 million to stand up National Guard cyber units in every state to prevent and respond to election security issues. But there's a glitch: the Defense Department is somewhat resistant to shifting its authority to states.

Why it matters: This is the latest example of the age-old fight in election security — that states should run their own elections, but much of the resources and authority lie with the feds.

The buzz:

  • "It’s kind of a turf war between the National Guard and the DOD," a House staff member told Axios.
  • “There’s some concern over who’s going to control this,” a spokesman for the National Guard Association of the U.S. tells Axios, whose organization is supportive of the bill.
  • "The DOD’s job is to be conservative. It’s Congress’ job to push for new ideas," Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer, whose bill on the issue preceded the Senate's, told Axios. He said at the end of the day, though, "everybody wants the same thing," which is more secure elections.

The arguments for it: The bill's authors, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Sen. Joe Manchin, and other advocates point out that the National Guard is already working on other critical infrastructure issues — including election security — in the states. As a result, the National Guard is uniquely familiar with the technological landscape that it would need to protect when it comes to election security, said Kilmer.

Why the DOD might be resistant: Standing up state-backed cyber units would naturally pull some resources away from the DOD.

  • “If there’s the Army and the Air Force paying for their training and equipment they’d like to have these people at their disposal when they need them,” the spokesman for the National Guard Association of the U.S. tells Axios. And yet the state perspective is, “this infrastructure is just as important."
  • It's unclear right now whether the DOD resistance spells an impasse for this legislation.

Details: Based on language currently in the House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the DOD would study some of the cyber units that are currently working on some states' election security — like in West Virginia.

  • Yes, but: A trial run of the program wasn't approved in the NDAA this year. While Kilmer said he wanted to "see how it goes, see where there might be issues in rollout and capability" in 10 states, a pilot was rebuffed in the rules committee.
  • Funding: The bill's funding would likely only initially stand up these state units, but would not be enough to sustain them long-term. That's because the cyber threat landscape will change rapidly over the next five years, according to a Senate aide, and new resources will be needed to ensure National Guard personnel are trained on the latest technologies.
  • Training: It will take time to get up and running. "These [cyber] units are in varying stages of operational readiness," the spokesperson for the National Guard said.

Bottom line: While the National Guard wouldn't comment on whether it supports the pending legislation, a spokesperson told Axios it would work with the DOD and other partners to "develop or integrate any required unique training and procedures to help National Guard cyber forces contribute to the cybersecurity mission."

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