Monday’s hearing to explore concerns about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s secret meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak included a little-noted observation that Russian meddlers attempted to access voter data.
James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election began in 2015 — long before it became clear that Donald Trump would become the GOP nominee.
“Election security first and foremost is a state responsibility, and it always should be.”
“Mainly, in an information gathering or recon ordering mode, where they were investigating voter registration rolls and the like,” Clapper said in response to a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) at a Senate subcommittee hearing. “And that activity started early, and so, we were monitoring this as it progressed, and certainly as it picked up, accelerated in spring, summer and fall of 2016.”
The comment gained little attention in a hearing dominated by testimony from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates about the warning she delivered to the White House about Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak.
But it was not the first time the issue has been raised. In September, ABC News reported that foreign hackers had targeted the voter registration systems in nearly half the states — including four, successfully. Confidential sources told ABC that Russia was the prime suspect.
FBI Director James Comey addressed the matter at a congressional hearing that month: “There’s no doubt that some bad actors have been poking around.”
The FBI warned state governments that hackers had broken into the Illinois Board of Elections and tried to access the voting system in Arizona.
There is no evidence that the Russians accessed voting machines or voting systems. Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, said hackers got copies of voter registration data that already was public information.
Still, there is a tinge of irony over Democrats’ worries about the integrity of the U.S. election system given the fact that they often greet concerns over voter integrity with yawns.
“Whatever it takes to get elected officials to wake up and realize the vulnerabilities, I welcome that discussion,” said Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote. “Whatever the catalyst is to have that conversation, welcome to the party.”
The Public Interest Legal Foundation has sued dozens of jurisdictions over inaccurate voter registration rolls — including many that have more names on their voter lists than they have voting-age adults. The organization also has raised alarms about ineligible voters on the rolls.
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The Department of Homeland Security last year tried deeming elections systems “critical infrastructure,” a designation whose significance is unclear.
The declaration made some voter-integrity activists nervous. Those worries jumped in December, when Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp accused the Department of Homeland Security of attempts to electronically penetrate his state’s voter registration system.
Churchwell said a Washington takeover of elections systems would be a bad idea.
“Election security first and foremost is a state responsibility, and it always should be,” he said.
Engelbrecht agreed. But she added that states need to do a better job of upgrading their equipment and putting anti-fraud safeguards in place.
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“We are being left in the dust even by countries with developing democracies that are approaching their elections with a higher level of integrity … We need to catch up with technology,” she said.