The federal agency charged with safeguarding the nation’s elections has provided recommendations to rural counties and small towns on how to protect their computers and the sites where they count votes, but some of those communities say they don’t have the money to make the fixes ahead of November’s election.

Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which oversees federal election security efforts, said that after the 2022 midterms her agency heard from rural areas that they needed extra help with election security. She said that CISA, formed in 2018, is committed to providing it.

“States to this point in time, they have pretty good resources and capabilities to deal with the full range of threats,” Easterly said. “But at the local level, townships, municipalities, counties, that’s where we have a challenge for resources. So that’s where we’ve been focused.”

But NBC News spoke to 17 election officials from smaller jurisdictions in eight states who said they worry communities like theirs aren’t getting the money they need from their counties, states or Washington, D.C., to make badly needed security upgrades.

The officials were not worried about vote outcomes being manipulated, but about physical threats to election offices and election workers. Several clerks told NBC News that their jobs have drastically changed in recent years because of rising threats posed by people who believe disinformation online that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and have shown up where votes are being counted, often intimidating election workers.

In Jackson County, Oregon, County Clerk Chris Walker recalls the threat her staff received in 2020 right after the presidential election, which Trump and many of his supporters said was stolen. In large letters in a parking lot across the street, someone painted “Vote don’t work, next time bullets.”

“I would not be truthful if I didn’t tell you I have lost sleep,” Walker said. “The job … has completely changed.”

A security adviser from CISA had come to visit Jackson County 11 months prior to the incident and suggested making upgrades to the CCTV system and outdoor lighting, but Walker could not afford to add cameras in the parking lot across the street where the threat was painted. 

“We got recommendations to better secure our facility. But it’s a work in progress. You’re never able to do everything all at once,” Walker said.

Across the state, in Harney County, Oregon, County Clerk Dag Robinson has similar fears about threats to his election workers. In November, his small staff will count votes in the county courthouse, which has a parking lot that was used as a staging area in 2016 by a militia that was occupying the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

“It was 41 days of hell for anyone who worked in this building,” Robinson said.

Harney County Clerk Dag Robinson
Harney County Clerk Dag Robinson says he once brought in armed guards from another county to protect staffers who were counting votes.NBC News

During a recall election following the occupation, Robinson brought in armed guards from a neighboring county to protect staff counting the ballots. But he won’t be able to borrow those guards during a general election when they are used by their own county.

CISA also sent him recommendations, such as protecting his power sources, arming the doors and setting up a barrier between observers and vote counters, but he hasn’t been able to afford those.

“They’ve pointed out issues that we need to deal with and have given us some avenues for some help for that, but they don’t offer really any funding for that,” Robinson said.

Across the country, in Shutesbury, Massachusetts, town clerk Grace Bannasch is worried about the weather or anything that could disturb her computer and power system, since the town lacks an IT department.

She recalls the night before last year’s local elections where she had to grease up her arm to reach behind an antique desk to find a backup power source. She was thankful she did because she did lose power briefly during the election the next day. Having a generator on site, or an IT department to call, would help alleviate her concerns, but the town is unable to afford it.

Bannasch said she recognizes that the federal government is intentionally limited in its involvement in elections, to instill confidence that there has been no interference, but she thinks it could play a larger role.

“I think the technology aspect is a place where the federal government can absolutely step up and support without having the ability to interfere” in elections, Bannasch said.

CISA’s Easterly said her agency points local jurisdictions to places where they can seek grant funding at the state and federal level.

Brianna Lennon, who manages elections as the clerk in Boone County, Missouri, said the process of seeking money can be prohibitively expensive. Some towns and counties don’t have the staff to submit grant applications and make sure they remain in compliance.

Easterly encouraged states to invest more in voting security for their towns and counties. Said Easterly, “States also need to focus on this on a matter of top priority, particularly as we go into this presidential election year.”

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