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Russia tried to undermine voting process in US, Senate panel reports

Hackers linked to Russia scanned state election systems for vulnerabilities, the Senate Intelligence Committee says.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY: US-vote-balloting
Robert Sullivan / AFP/Getty Images

Russia was preparing to wage a campaign to undermine confidence in the US voting process when hackers associated with Russia's government targeted about 18 state election systems in the months leading up to the 2016 election, the Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded.

The hackers attempted to access several state election systems, but the committee said it found no evidence of vote tallies being changed. Some voter registration databases were accessed, though, and the hackers were "in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data," the committee said in a report released on Tuesday.

"These activities began at least as early as 2014, continued through Election Day 2016, and included traditional information-gathering efforts as well as operations likely aimed at preparing to discredit the integrity of the US voting process and election results," the senators wrote.

Election security has been a recurring concern over the last decade as states, counties and cities adopted electronic voting machines, but attention was greatly heightened after the DHS announced in September 2017 that Russian hackers had made numerous attempts to break into the nation's electoral systems.

Russian meddling was prevalent throughout the 2016 presidential election, through propaganda campaigns on social media and phishing attacks on the Democratic National Committee. Attempted attacks on voting machines and election infrastructure would strike a different nerve because they would mean hackers could alter votes directly.

The report found that hackers scanned election systems for vulnerabilities in at least 18 states, with varying levels of confidence that three other states were targeted. In at least six states, Russian hackers attempted to breach voting-related websites, and in "a small number of states," they were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure.

The report, which was unclassified, called the Department of Homeland Security's initial response "inadequate to counter the threat." But it credits the department with increasing its response during the summer and fall of 2016 as more evidence of the threat emerged.

In March, the committee released a list of six recommendations for state and local election officials on protecting their voting machines and databases ahead of the midterm elections. Among the recommendations offered included updating systems software, replacing outdated voting machines with electronic machines that have a paper trail, and conducting audits of election results.

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