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DECATUR — Illinois counties could get a cut of $13.2 million to fortify election databases and avoid a repeat of the 2016 election, when as many as 76,000 Illinois voters' data may have been compromised. 

National security officials say voting systems in 21 states were targeted by Russian-connected hackers two years ago, prompting Congress to allocate $380 million this year to secure election systems and shore up cybersecurity. Use of Illinois' share is laid out in the state budget approved this spring, which designates no less than half be used to create a Cyber Navigator Program to support the efforts of election authorities to defend against data breaches and detect and recover from attacks.

“We became sort of the poster child for what can happen and how you deal with it,” said Matt Dietrich, an Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman, referring to a breach of Illinois' electronic voter database in July 2016.

The agency's executive director, Steve Sandvoss, said in February the threat to cybersecurity during the state's November 2018 election is real.

A conference next week in Bloomington featuring local election officials and representatives of the Illinois State Police, Department of Homeland Security and the Election Assistance Commission will educate officials on election security, from recognizing and reporting a threat to how hackers can try to access their networks.

Helping to organize the event is six-term Logan County Clerk Sally Turner.

"Most county clerks have no idea that, when they ran for office, that they would have to be an IT director," she said. "And so, this is helping us get a basic knowledge of what is all this information that is out there, and how do we decipher it all."

For McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael, public awareness of the training county clerks and their staffs undergo also will show voters efforts are being made to ensure the integrity of future elections.

“I think the public needs to be made aware ... the rights of voters here in Illinois are really being protected with great vigor,” she said.

Macon County Clerk Steve Bean said online security for his office has become a top priority as the threats evolve. 

“I’ve probably had more meetings in the last two years over (cybersecurity) than any other thing related to elections,” said Bean.

No one knows yet how much money each county could receive to improve security or guidelines for how that money could be spent. Dietrich said the Board of Elections is working alongside agencies such as the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology, Illinois State Police and the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center to set up the program.

President Donald Trump's top intelligence adviser in February told a Senate committee that Russia is moving to build on its earlier efforts to interfere with U.S. elections, which included a sustained campaign of propaganda and the unleashing of cyberoperatives.

"There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target," said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence.

No evidence indicates that hackers succeeded in directly tinkering with votes, but there is ongoing concern that voter registration technology is vulnerable. 

In a "60 Minutes" report in April, Sandvoss called cyberattacks "a fast-growing tumor" that was "unlike anything we had ever seen." The state was able to plug website holes after hackers got "bits of information" on tens of thousands of voters and complete records of 3,500, according to the story. 

The threat of election hacking isn't new, said Glen Sagers, professor of cybersecurity in the School of Information Technology at Illinois State University. In 2005, a test of machines made by popular election equipment company Diebold showed they could be hacked without notice.

“A lot of times, the software just isn’t well written,” Sagers said. “So if you’re susceptible to that or any other kinds of attacks … you can get in there and change the records and there wouldn’t be any records you were ever there as an attacker.”

Improving one's security can be costly, Bean said. Aside from new equipment is the cost of hiring specialists to analyze and test one's systems. 

Macon County purchased new equipment in 2016 for $550,000, in part, because the county's old equipment was shown to be susceptible to hacking.

And then there is what Josh Tanner, who oversees information technology in the Macon County office building along with his role as supervisor of assessments, calls the “cat and mouse” nature of protecting oneself from hackers. As the county changes its technology and tactics, so too do potential hackers, he said. 

“They will try to probe the system, and then when we notice high levels of traffic from overseas countries, then we can shut that entire country off (from accessing the site) and see if legitimate customers call and say, ‘Hey, we cannot access the county’s website anymore,’” Tanner said, adding the county has seen such spikes. “But by that point, they move on to another location.” 

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Contact Ryan Voyles at (217) 421-7985. Follow him on Twitter: @RVVoyles

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