Voting Machine Manufacturers Discuss Potential Election Interference From Foreign Adversaries

January 10, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Voters cast their vote in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary at Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church in Lexington, South Carolina, on January 21, 2012. (C. Aluka Berry/The State/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Top executives from companies that make voting machines tried to ease lawmaker’s concerns that hackers could influence the nation’s elections during a congressional hearing Thursday.

Their concern was heightened this week by an Iranian missile strike at a U.S. military installation in Iraq. The Iranians’ next step could be a cyberattack to interfere with the 2020 national elections, according to witnesses and congressmen.

“The thing I’m most worried about is a repeat of some of the types of attacks we saw in 2016 against larger election infrastructure,” Matt Blaze, a Georgetown University Law Center professor, told the Committee on House Administration. 

“A determined adversary who wanted to disrupt our elections would have a frighteningly easy task,” Blaze said.

He was referring to Russian hackers who infiltrated U.S. voting systems in an apparent attempt to sway the last presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.

The congressional committee is considering proposals that would impose greater government regulation on voting machine manufacturers to reduce the risk of infiltration.

Three companies, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), Dominion Voting Systems and Hart InterCivic, make more than 80 percent of the voting machines used in the U.S..

Their chief executive officers testified to Congress for the first time about an industry that until now has operated in the background and been lightly regulated.

Until recently, the lack of an Internet connection for voting machines led lawmakers to believe they were secure from remote hacking, however, recent acknowledgements by the companies their machines use wireless modems able to connect to the Internet raised alarms in Congress.

“Despite their outsized role in the mechanics of our democracy, some have accused these companies with obfuscating and in some cases misleading election administrators and the American public,” said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who chairs the House Administration Committee.

She asked the chief executives about how their machines are made and where they get the parts.

“Do you have components in the supply chain that come from Russia or China?” Lofgren asked.

ES&S Chief Executive Tom Burt said his company uses “programmable logic devices” made by an American company with a factory in China. Texas Instruments, which owns a semiconductor plant in China, supplies ES&S with computer chips.

He added that his relatively small company lacks the influence to make his suppliers change their business partners.

Hart InterCivic Chief Executive Julie Mathis also said her company’s machines use parts made in China but not Russia.

Dominion Chief Executive John Poulos said his company’s machines were manufactured exclusively in the United States.

Voting machines are designed to comply with federal security standards developed 15 years ago, when election hacking appeared to be less of a threat.

The chief executives acknowledged that updates might be needed.

“We urge you to continue working with election officials to help remove additional barriers that exist for modernizing their infrastructure,” Poulous said.

All three of the executives said they are willing to cooperate in any new regulations that might require them to disclose suppliers for their components, details of their ownership and how they respond to cyberattacks.

They also thanked Congress for appropriating $425 million recently in supplemental federal Election Assistance Commission funding for states to improve election security. The money could be used to buy new voting machines and other equipment.

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