Nation’s top voting equipment vendors grilled by Senate on election security
The Senate’s leading election security advocates blasted the country’s top voting equipment vendors on Tuesday for potentially failing to shore up ballot boxes despite November’s midterm elections already being underway with primaries.
Mark Warner, also the top Democrat in the Senate’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, scolded Texas-based Hart InterCivic for failing to cooperate with a security review in his home state of Virginia after that contest.
“I am very concerned that there is a lot of chest thumping about how well we did in 2016,” Mr. Warner said during a Senate Rules and Administration Committee’s hearing on election safety the second on the subject in less than a month.
Peter Lichtenheld, vice president of operations for Hart InterCivic, had earlier told lawmakers of the firm’s “strong working relationships” with federal, state and local election officials.
Under questioning from Mr. Warner, he initially explained the more than 100-year-old company had just a few customers in Virginia and that they were soon moving to different systems anyway. But when Mr. Warner continued prodding, Mr. Lichtenheld admitted Hart InterCivic did not provide Virginia with its machines.
Committee Republicans and independents joined Mr. Warner’s warnings.
Despite the grilling, Mr. Lichtenheld fared better than the nation’s largest voting equipment vendor, Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software (ESS), which provides services in at least 42 states.
ESS did not send a representative to the hearing, but several senators noted that the firm was involved in what could have been a disastrous election breach but luckily never occurred. That revelation was reported last year when security researchers found voter files for more than 1.8 million Illinois residents on an unsecured Amazon server under ESS’s control.
Committee chairman Sen. Roy Blount, Missouri Republican, noted in his opening remarks that efforts to shore up security holes this year were accelerating as states accessed substantial resources Congress allocated earlier this year. That $380 million, which was in the FY2018 omnibus spending package, went to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to help states enhance election infrastructure.
The EAC has reported that 49 states and territories have requested approximately $350 million of the funds.
Mr. Blunt also noted that “the formalization of information sharing and collaboration among private entities and the federal government” was key to the future of election security.
As states continue preparing for November’s general elections, with every House seat up for grabs, along with a third of the Senate and many state and local contests Russian attempts to hack into 21 U.S. states during the 2016 election continue casting a long shadow over Capitol Hill.
Tuesday’s hearing saw members address related concerns from different angles.
Several senators focused on the age of the roughly 350,000 voting machines in use across the country. Recent analysis has found that 41 states rely upon systems at least a decade old.
The primary concern with older systems which are either direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines or optical-scan systems is that many leave no paper trail to serve as a backup in the event of malfunctions or hacks.
With DRE systems, voters touch a screen or button to make their selections while optical-scanners require them to fill out a paper ballot which is then fed into an optical scanner.
When Sen. Angus King, Maine independent, asked hearing witness Thomas Hicks if all votes needed a paper backup, the U.S. Election Assistance Commissioner replied “it depends on the state.”
Mr. Hicks also exposed the ad-hoc nature of election security, which some officials have argued actually makes it safer because the entire system could never be hacked.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada Democrat, asked how many government vendors, like Hart InterCivic and ESS were officially certified. Mr. Hicks answered that the process was voluntary.