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Officials at Odds Over Real, Perceived Threats to State Voting Systems

Lawmakers and state voting officials faced off on what they see as the most pervasive threat to the U.S. election systems during a hearing in Washington, D.C., June 20.

(TNS) — WASHINGTON — Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Wednesday that the United States is in “a much better place” than it was in 2016 in defending against cyberattacks on election systems, but a hearing he convened on that threat devolved into fiery exchanges over voter fraud between Democratic senators and Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.

The Republican Ashcroft set off Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., when he declared that election fraud was “exponentially” a bigger threat than attempts to hack U.S. election infrastructures by Russians or any other bad actors.

Ashcroft cited a case of Missouri State Sen. John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, who won his first primary election to the Missouri House in 2010 by a single vote, and whose aunt and uncle three years later pleaded guilty to voter fraud for illegally voting in that election. By contrast, Ashcroft said during a Senate Rules Committee hearing and in comments later to reporters there is no evidence that attempted hacking by the Russians or anyone else affected the outcome of the 2016 elections.

Ashcroft said Missouri voter files are the subject of an average of 100,000 “scans” daily. Maura Browning, a spokeswoman for Ashcroft, said a “scan” is “generally an automated system that looks for known vulnerabilities” in a computer network.

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said his state faces 5,000-6,000 of such scans daily. The two officials said they did not know how many are attempts by bad actors to affect the voting system, and so all have to be initially treated that way.

Ashcroft said that he worries that constant attention to the threat has eroded public confidence in voting.

“I wanted to highlight that we were here to discuss supposed ‘hacking,’ and I put that in quotes because no votes were changed, no registrations were changed,” Ashcroft told reporters in a press conference with secretaries of state of Vermont and Minnesota after they testified.

“And what has happened is, I think, that individuals have misreported or made misstatements and they have lowered the credibility of our elections with the people of this country."

“The No. 1 threat to our country and our election system is that we have such low voter turnout and when we are telling people mistakenly that their elections were changed by foreign actors or by election systems hacking we are encouraging people, I assume unintentionally, to stay home, and that is reprehensible,” he said.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, disagreed.

“I believe that the No. 1 threat to the integrity of our elections nationwide is the possibility of some outside infiltration or breach or attack by someone acting to influence our elections or to mess with the instruments of our elections,” he said.

It was Ashcroft’s assertion that “the evidence indicates that voter fraud is an exponentially greater threat than hacking of election equipment” that animated Durbin, who pointed out his state was one of 21 targeted by Russian hackers, according to U.S. intelligence reports.

“Somebody left a little wormhole in there and they got into our voter file,” Durbin said. “They had the capacity — thank goodness they didn’t use it — to change just a digit on each of our addresses and make a chaotic situation.

“The threat was there” from hacking he said, while “I can count on both hands cases of voter fraud ... in the last several election cycles” in his state.

“When it comes to this hacking it is an exponentially greater threat to our voting system than voter fraud,” Durbin said, directing his comment to Ashcroft.

Blunt came to Ashcroft’s defense, saying that voter fraud “is a problem.

“It happens not to be a problem we are dealing with in this bill, in this hearing, or right now,” Blunt said.

The bill he was referencing is being pushed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., James Lankford, R-Okla., and others. It would require Homeland Security officials and others to more readily share voting system threats to state officials when they happen. A major criticism of Barack Obama’s administration was that its intelligence officials did not identify the threats to state voting systems fast enough to act upon them in 2016.

Matt Masterson, senior cybersecurity adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, testified that DHS had taken a host of steps to address those critiques. He was not in that job in 2016, and the three secretaries of state at the hearing all complimented him on improvements in communication and information-sharing.

In addition, states, including Missouri and Illinois, have already begun drawing on a $380 million federal appropriation to upgrade their election cybersecurity defense.

Blunt says that he’s unsure if new legislation is necessary because DHS and Congress are already doing many of the things required in the bill.

Durbin said, “I think the Russians are after us again” in the 2018 elections, but “I hope I’m wrong.”

Blunt told reporters that “I would think we are in a much better place than we were in 2016 just because everybody is aware."

“More notice being given in 2016 to local officials would have been a good thing, but you have to be pretty unaware of what is going on as a local election official not to have a sense that there are things out there that you should be concerned about at a higher level than you have been in the past,” he said.

©2018 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.