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Folmer searching for answers to elections system woes

Jason Addy
505-5437/@JasonAddyYD

On the back of a highly contentious presidential election that featured numerous reports of Russian interference and hacking, state Sen. Mike Folmer is trying to figure out how Pennsylvania’s elections system fared and how to improve it in time for the 2020 presidential election.

Folmer, R-York, Dauphin and Lebanon counties, brought in a panel of county election directors and representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of State and the National Conference of State Legislatures to testify Tuesday before the Senate’s state government committee, which he chairs.

State Sen. Mike Folmer, who represents part of York County, is concerned with the ability of the state election system to withstand hacking.

The panel cited a number of concerns about the system, including aging voting equipment and a shrinking pool of poll workers.

But the day after a leaked top-secret intelligence report from the National Security Agency indicated Russian military intelligence officials executed a cyberattack on a U.S. voting software supplier, cybersecurity was clearly on Folmer's mind.

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Noting that it’s nearly impossible to “escape” the Russian hacking narrative, Folmer asked several of the panelists if any votes in Pennsylvania were affected by Russian hacking efforts.

Jonathan Marks, representing the Department of State, said there was a “very noticeable” effort by the Russians to influence public opinion in the presidential campaign, but there is no evidence that a single vote in Pennsylvania was altered by the foreign state.

In fact, Pennsylvania’s “very local” election system setup, which officials said was the source of many issues for the state, helped officials keep the results secure, Marks said.

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All connectivity features are disabled on the voting software system currently used by elections officials, meaning Russian hackers would have to be at polling places in order to hack into the system and tamper with votes, Marks said.

Hacking attempts: For years, election officials have said the highly decentralized U.S. voting system is its own best defense against vote-rigging and sabotage, but the leaked report indicates that hasn't stopped foreign states from exploring ways to attack it.

The report describes alleged attempts by Russian military intelligence officials to hack local elections systems, and officials believe the hackers might have been laying the groundwork for future subversive activity.

The Russian officials targeted employees of a Florida-based voting systems supplier in August and exploited the technical data they uncovered to identify local election officials, according to the report. The hackers then sent phishing emails to 122 Florida elections officials just days before the Nov. 8 presidential election, hoping to gain access to their login credentials and break into the voting systems.

There is no evidence that hackers were able to tamper with vote counts or registration rolls, but that might not have been their only intent.

Someone trying to cause chaos or discredit an election could delete names from registration rolls before voting — or request absentee ballots en masse. In the latter case, a voter showing up at the polls on Election Day would be recorded as having already cast their ballot, which would force voters to file provisional ballots and cause long lines. There is no evidence that any of this happened in the November general election.

Former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed in May to lead the FBI's ongoing probe into possible collusion between President Donald Trump's campaign and the Russian government. James Comey, whom Trump fired as FBI director last month, is scheduled to testify Thursday in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee about his interactions with the president regarding the bureau's investigation.

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Staffing issues: Much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on the need for reforms in the state’s elections systems and ways of reducing the financial burden of the state’s outdated election regulations. One issue is the residency requirements of elections officials and a dwindling number of available poll workers, according to Forrest Lehman, election director for Lycoming County.

“With the current system and laws, I don’t see a resolution,” Butler County election director Shari Brewer said, proposing centralized voting centers for multiple municipalities where officials can train fewer workers more effectively.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.