Senators question DHS on North Carolina voting equipment malfunctions

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

Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage Protect American patients and innovation from a harmful MedTech Tax increase MORE (D-Minn.) and Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedPentagon's No. 2 policy official to retire Senate panel advances Pentagon chief, Joint Chiefs chairman nominees Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations 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 MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump 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 PetersHillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Senators introduce legislation to boost cyber defense training in high school Alarm sounds over census cybersecurity concerns MORE (D-Mich.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Senate passes bill making hacking voting systems a federal crime Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency at hearing 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.