Pennsylvania Announces Audit of Election Systems in Wake of Attempted Russian Hacking

The state auditor will look at equipment, record keeping and other pieces of the voting process.

by Beth Brelje, Reading Eagle / June 12, 2018
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) TNS

(TNS) — Russians were unsuccessful in attempts to hack Pennsylvania's election systems during the 2016 presidential election, but the state will conduct an audit to assure voter confidence is intact.

"We all know there has been a lot of discussion about interference in the 2016 presidential election," Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Monday. "I was astounded to learn that it was nearly a year after the election that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security informed us that Pennsylvania was one of 21 states targeted by Russians who tried to hack our election system."

DePasquale, Pennsylvania's elected fiscal watchdog, spoke during a press conference in the capitol newsroom with Acting Secretary of State Robert Torres, state Sen. Mike Folmer, a Lebanon County Republican, and state Sen. Kim Ward, a Westmoreland County Republican.

"According to the Department of Homeland Security, hackers targeted voter registration systems," DePasquale said.

The hackers targeted Pennsylvania's Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, or SURE, system.

"To the best of our knowledge, they were not successful," DePasquale said Monday.

The auditor general said his goal is to complete the audit in time to make any changes it might recommend in time for the 2020 presidential election.

Torres explained how the attempt was detected and how the hackers worked.

"The Department of Homeland Security identified IP addresses," he said. "That is how we were able to tell they were trying to scan our databases," Torres said. "Scanning is like a burglar going into your neighborhood looking for a door lock that was not secure, or an open window."

Layers of Security

Like DePasquale, Torres said Pennsylvania appears to have resisted those efforts in 2016.

"There is no evidence that ever occurred in Pennsylvania," he said, adding that the state has layers of security to prevent such a breach.

The Department of Homeland Security reported during congressional hearings last year that 21 states were targeted by hackers during the 2016 presidential election.

"Initially we did not realize we were one of those states," Torres said.

The would-be hackers were looking for vulnerable, public-facing websites.

Torres said the Department of State has layers of security including encryption technology and the DHS scans Pennsylvania's system daily.

The Pennsylvania Department of State just completed its second two-week vulnerability assessment with DHS and its results are not yet in, he said. Still, Torres said he welcomes DePasquale's audit.

"If there are observations that can help us strengthen our security posture, we'll all be better off for it," Torres said.

What Will be Checked

DePasquale's audit team will go back to the start of 2016, and its review also could include an evaluation of the state's voting machines. Auditors will see if the voter registration data meets the requirements of federal and state law, review how the records are entered into the system and maintained, and examine other issues about the existing system's operability and efficiency.

The audit will review the security protocols of the SURE system, check to see if the records maintained by SURE are accurate and in agreement with election laws, and evaluate the process for input and maintenance of voter registration records. The audit will also review the ways voters register in Pennsylvania, including online, on paper, voter registration drives and through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, DePasquale said.

A bill calling for an audit, proposed by Ward, passed the Senate in April, but has not moved out of the House. DePasquale said time is of the essence and his department could not wait for the bill to pass because he wants the audit completed before the next presidential election.

A memorandum of understanding between the office of Gov. Tom Wolf, the Pennsylvania Department of State and DePasquale's office allows the audit to move forward without the bill.

"It's just so important that we put some integrity back in the system so that the voters have confidence when they go to the polls that what they do, matters," Ward said.

"If you look at social media, you see all the conspiracies and theories out there. This will put that to rest. People will be assured that things are going properly. It is important that this is completed before the 2020 election."

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

©2018 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.