From 2017 to 2019, the Senate Intelligence Committee held hearings, conducted interviews, and reviewed intelligence related to Russian attempts in 2016 to access election infrastructure. The Committee sought to determine the extent of Russian activities, identify the response of the U.S. Government at the state, local, and federal level to the threat, and make recommendations on how to better prepare for such threats in the future. The Committee received testimony from state election officials, Obama administration officials, and those in the Intelligence Community and elsewhere in the U.S. Government responsible for evaluating threats to elections.
The Russian government directed extensive activity, beginning in at least 2014 and carrying into at least 2017, against U.S. election infrastructure’ at the state and local level. The Committee has seen no evidence that any votes were changed or that any voting machines were manipulated.
While the Committee does not know with confidence what Moscow’s intentions were, Russia may have been probing vulnerabilities in voting systems to exploit later. Alternatively, Moscow may have sought to undermine confidence in the 2016 U.S. elections simply through the discovery of their activity.
Russian efforts exploited the seams between federal authorities and capabilities, and protections for the states. The U.S. intelligence apparatus is, by design, foreign-facing, with limited domestic cybersecurity authorities except where the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can work with state and local partners. State election officials, who have primacy in running elections, were not sufficiently warned or prepared to handle an attack from a hostile nation-state actor.
DHS and FBI alerted states to the threat of cyber attacks in the late summer and fall of 2016, but the warnings did not provide enough information or go to the right people. Alerts were actionable, in that they provided malicious Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to information technology (IT) professionals, but they provided no clear reason for states to take this threat more seriously than any other alert received.
In 2016, officials at all levels of government debated whether publicly acknowledging this foreign activity was the right course. Some were deeply concerned that public warnings might promote the very impression they were trying to dispel—that the voting systems were insecure.
Russian activities demand renewed attention to vulnerabilities in U.S. voting infrastructure. In 2016, cybersecurity for electoral infrastructure at the state and local level was sorely lacking; for example, voter registration databases were not as secure as they could have been. Aging voting equipment, particularly voting machines that had no paper record of votes, were vulnerable to exploitation by a committed adversary. Despite the focus on this issue since 2016, some of these vulnerabilities remain.
In the face of this threat and these security gaps, DHS has redoubled its efforts to build trust with states and deploy resources to assist in securing elections. Since 2016, DHS has made great strides in learning how election procedures vary across states and how federal entities can be of most help to states. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED), and other groups have helped DHS in this effort. DHS’s work to bolster states’ cybersecurity has likely been effective, in particular for those states that have leveraged DI IS’s cybersecurity assessments for election infrastructure, but much more needs to be done to coordinate state, local, and federal knowledge and efforts in order to harden states’ electoral infrastructure against foreign meddling.
To assist in addressing these vulnerabilities, Congress in 2018 appropriated $380 million in grant money for the states to bolster cybersecurity and replace vulnerable voting machines. When those funds are spent, Congress should evaluate the results and consider an additional appropriation to address remaining insecure voting machines and systems.
DHS and other federal government entities remain respectful of the limits of federal involvement in state election systems. States should be firmly in the lead for running elections. The country’s decentralized election system can be a strength from a cybersecurity perspective, but each operator should be keenly aware of the limitations of their cybersecurity capabilities and know how to quickly and properly obtain assistance.