As primaries unfolded in four states, and with just six months until Election Day, the Senate Intelligence Committee provided new detail in a report Tuesday on the extent of Russia’s unprecedented interference campaign in the 2016 election, actions that appear to have gone further than simple scanning of databases.
While some 21 states saw their election systems scanned by Russian government-backed hackers, as first reported by ABC News, the Senate panel revealed for the first time that “in at least six states, the Russian-affiliated cyber actors went beyond scanning and conducted malicious access attempts on voting-related websites.”
In its report, the committee added that in some states “Russian-affiliated cyber actors were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure. In a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data.”
But the committee reiterated earlier findings from March that vote totals and individual votes “did not appear” to have been manipulated.
Committee chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., told reporters Tuesday, “Our major recommendation is still that states should have a backup paper ballot.”
Of the four states voting Tuesday - Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia - Indiana alone has no paper ballot backup.
The nation's intelligence agencies, in a blunt assessment delivered to Congress earlier this year, warned that the Russians are intent on interfering in future elections as they did in 2016.
And the Associated Press reported Monday that the Department of Homeland Security has been slow to provide state-requested risk assessments - delivering only half the number requested so far.
The Intelligence committee, in a set of findings released in March, recommended that states institute paper ballot backups. In a related hearing, senators pushed federal officials to get state election officials security clearances in order to be debriefed on election system breaches and threats.
The election security portion of the panel’s wider probe of the Russian attack on the 2016 election is expected to be followed by a report next week examining the Intelligence Community’s assessment that the Kremlin sought to help then-candidate Trump win the election.
So far, committees with jurisdiction over election security have shown little-to-no appetite for holding hearings or urgency in approving legislation to shore up the U.S. election infrastructure, beyond the Senate panel.
But Congress is virtually powerless to enforce any of its findings; states are in charge of their own elections.
The lack of authority to legislate change is a poignant reminder of how difficult and cumbersome this process has been for members, as they attempt to prevent future cyber-attacks on the U.S. election system.