Trump DHS pick worried about voting machine security during Va. election

Trump DHS pick worried about voting machine security during Va. election
© Greg Nash

President Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Wednesday that she pressed her polling place on voting machine security when she voted in Virginia this week. 

Kirstjen Nielsen, the nominee for Homeland Security secretary, made the comments during her confirmation hearing Wednesday morning when asked about the department’s role in protecting election infrastructure from cyberattacks. 

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“When I went to vote this week in the Virginia election, I was quite concerned with the scanning machine and started asking a variety of questions on what the security was on the scanning machine for the ballot. I think we all have to be very aware and work with the state and locals,” Nielsen said. 

The issue of the security of voting machines, voter registration databases and other election infrastructure has gotten more attention in the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. U.S. officials have said that the effort involved targeting election systems not involved in vote tallying in 21 different states. 

In response, DHS designated election infrastructure as critical, opening it up to cyber and physical protections in states that request help.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordHillicon Valley: Verizon, AT&T call off data partnerships after pressure | Tech speaks out against Trump family separation policy | T-Mobile, Sprint make case for B merger 13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families Senators introduce bipartisan bill to detect supply chain risks posing threats to national security MORE (R-Okla.) on Wednesday expressed frustration that DHS took "too long" to notify election officials in all 21 states they were targeted. He asked Nielsen to commit to swiftly getting state officials the security clearances they need to view threat information and ensure that states can audit the results of their elections following the vote. 

“You have my commitment,” Nielsen said. “The role of DHS, as you know, is to respond to requests from those officials, ensure that they have the clearance so that they can receive the information, and then offer a variety of tools to ensure from supply chain all the way through to that dissemination of the voter roles, that it’s protected.” 

“I also would offer, redundancy is very important on the back end with the audits,” she continued. “Whether it’s paper ballots or physically moving the ballots — as they do in California as chaperoned by the highway patrol — we need to ensure the integrity of our electoral system.” 

The security of voting machines is a source of debate among the cybersecurity community. Some say that the risk of hacking is minimal because the machines are not connected to the internet. Still, some have sounded alarm over outdated machines and pushed for ways to audit results and do away with completely paperless machines. 

Virginia earlier this year moved to scrap touch-screen voting machines ahead of the gubernatorial election out of security concerns after experts hacked into a number of voting machines with ease at the annual DEFCON cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas.

On Tuesday, voters in the state elected Democrat Ralph Northam to serve as the state's next governor. 

Nielsen, who currently serves as Trump’s deputy chief of staff, has been widely cheered for her cybersecurity experience. 

Nielsen served at DHS during the George W. Bush administration. Before rejoining the department under the Trump administration as John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE’s chief of staff, she was a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. 

When Kelly moved to the White House to serve as Trump’s chief of staff in July, Nielsen moved with him.

Nielsen singled out cybersecurity as “one of the most significant” parts of DHS’s mission during her opening remarks to lawmakers on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday. 

“The scope and pace of cyberattacks against our federal networks and the control systems that run our critical infrastructure are continually increasing, with attacks growing evermore complex and each more sophisticated than the last,” she said.