Senators question DHS on North Carolina voting equipment malfunctions

Senators question DHS on North Carolina voting equipment malfunctions
© Greg Nash

Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharGoogle sparks new privacy fears over health care data Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment Outsider candidates outpoll insider candidates MORE (D-Minn.) and Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedIt's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number America's avengers deserve an advocate Democrats unifying against Joe Kennedy Senate bid MORE (D-R.I.) are demanding answers regarding voting equipment malfunctions in North Carolina during the 2016 presidential election, as election security continues to be a contentious topic on Capitol Hill.

Klobuchar and Reed sent a letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan late last week asking him to explain the steps taken by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to investigate the “unexpected behavior” of voting equipment made by VR Systems during the 2016 election in Durham County, North Carolina.

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On election day, electronic poll books in this county made by VR Systems malfunctioned, leading the county to switch to paper poll books. It is not clear if this was the result of a cyberattack or a different cause. 

The letter from the two Democratic senators was sent in the wake of the release of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE's report, which concluded that Russian officers “targeted employees of [redacted], a voting technology company that developed software used by numerous U.S. counties to manage voter rolls, and installed malware on the company network.”

VR Systems has since confirmed to the media that it was that company whose name was redacted in the Mueller report.

Following the release of the Mueller report, VR Systems Chief Operating Officer Ben Martin said in a statement that the “report reiterates details that have been known for several years about the spear phishing attempts made during the 2016 election period.”

Martin noted that VR Systems has implemented a “comprehensive program” to combat cyber attacks in the years since 2016. 

Klobuchar and Reed took issue with DHS’s handling of the Durham County incident, drilling McAleenan on whether malicious hacking incidents were responsible for the failure of the VR Systems electronic poll books in North Carolina in 2016.

“It is critical that we learn as much as we can about the extent of the attacks we faced in 2016, and that these lessons be shared as widely as possible so that our nation is fully prepared for the 2020 elections,” the senators wrote. 

While DHS said in June that it plans to forensically investigate the laptops that ran VR Systems software that were used by Durham County during the 2016 incident, the senators wrote that they are “concerned that this is only happening now, over two and a half years after the 2016 elections.”

Klobuchar and Reed asked McAleenan to provide details on why it took 18 months for DHS to respond to a request by the North Carolina Board of Elections to formally investigate the laptops and whether the ability by VR Systems to remotely access voting list management systems could have led to cyber vulnerabilities in 2016. 

The senators gave McAleenan until July 26 to respond to their questions.

A spokesperson for DHS did not respond to request for comment on this story. 

This is the second time Klobuchar and Reed have teamed up to look into election equipment manufacturers in recent months, having previously sent letters to the three largest voting machine companies in the U.S. in March urging them to strengthen their equipment against cyberattacks.

Sens. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersAdvocates step up efforts for horse racing reform bill after more deaths Warren doubles down — to Democrats' chagrin, and Trump's delight Senators urge Trump to fill vacancies at DHS MORE (D-Mich.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerMicrosoft embraces California law, shaking up privacy debate Google sparks new privacy fears over health care data GOP senators warn against Trump firing intelligence community official MORE (D-Va.) also signed on to these letters.

Klobuchar, who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee and is running for president, has been one of the main Senate Democrats to push for passage of election security legislation. The Senate Rules Committee has primary jurisdiction over election security issues. 

Updated at 4:35 p.m.