Elections Seen Safer From Hacking, but Meddling Threat Lingers

July 12, 2018 Ken Doyle
  • Federal grants aimed at helping states ensure voting integrity
  • `Hard’ to penetrate systems, not `impossible,’ official says

U.S. elections are safer from hacking than they were two years ago, but the threat of foreign meddling hasn’t been stamped out, lawmakers said.

“People are much more aware of the problem and taking steps to protect themselves” from hacking before the November elections, Sen. Amy Klobuchar(D-Minn.) said in a phone interview. “We’ve reached a new era” with lawmakers of both parties concerned about Russia’s interference in 2016 and are “trying to solve the problem going forward,” she said.

Klobuchar spoke after the Senate Rules and Administration Committee took testimony from experts on how to safeguard U.S. elections. Congress provided $380 million for grants in response to Department of Homeland Security revelations that Russia targeted election systems in at least 21 states for possible interference in 2016. The DHS found no evidence of actual ballot tampering, but said steps are needed to secure future elections.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) played down election-meddling concerns at the hearing, and questioned whether the decentralized U.S. elections, which rely on different voting systems in state and local jurisdictions, could be hacked.

“It would be very hard to do that, but I can’t say impossible,” responded Christy McCormick, the vice chairwoman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a small federal agency.

McCormick, a Republican, drew criticism at the hearing from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for minimizing the hacking threat. He called it “inexcusable” that 44 million Americans have to rely on “insecure voting machines” that don’t have a voter-verified paper trail.

There’s “zero doubt that Russia tried to influence’’ the 2016 voting, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), testifying alongside Wyden, said. At the same time, Lankford said state and local officials can handle the threat of meddling if they’re prepared.

`Tip of the Spear’

After the hearing, Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the panel and the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters he’s concerned about President Donald Trump’s planned meeting with President Vladimir Putin while Russia continues to threaten elections.

The 2016 interference represented the “tip of the spear” of possible future activities aimed at undermining democracy, Warner said during the hearing.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been probing Russia’s meddling, including whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Trump has denied any collusion and at times has questioned whether Russia interfered in the election at all.

The Election Assistance Commission’s goal is to get grants out to states in time to upgrade voting systems by November, and officials say they’re succeeding.

Forty-nine states and U.S. territories have applied for 97 percent of the amount appropriated by Congress in a government funding bill approved in March, EAC Chairman Thomas Hicks, a Democrat, said at the hearing.

The top priority for spending the federal money is to upgrade state and local voting systems to ensure they create a paper trail for all votes as a backup against computer hacking. The money also is set to be used for cybersecurity, including new equipment and training.

Paper Trail

Klobuchar and Lankford also have proposed legislation (S. 2261) that would establish procedures for sharing information and best practices regarding cybersecurity threats. It would call for requiring voting systems to have a paper trail as a safeguard against election hacking, though some state and local officials and others have resisted imposing any new federal requirements for voting systems.

The DHS is working closely with many states to make sure they are aware of cybersecurity threats and how to deal with them, Matthew Masterson, a former Republican EAC commissioner now working at the department, told the hearing. Not all states are taking the same actions, however.

The DHS has offered to perform risk assessments for voting systems across the country, but only 18 states have requested that such assessments be performed, Masterson said.

Only one representative appeared at the hearing from the nation’s three largest voting machine vendors, which provide more than 90 percent of the nation’s voting systems.

Wyden accused other voting machine companies of “stonewalling” questions about cybersecurity.

Peter Lichtenheld, the vice president of operations for Austin-based Hart InterCivic Inc., said his company has cooperated in efforts to secure voting systems from hacking.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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