Reports of massive hacking attempts of South Carolina’s voter system likely overblown

Numbers sometimes lie

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Voters line up to cast their ballots at School of the Arts in North Charleston in 2016 - SAM SPENCE
  • Sam Spence
  • Voters line up to cast their ballots at School of the Arts in North Charleston in 2016
The South Carolina Election Commission says there were almost 150,000 blocked attempts to penetrate the firewall of the statewide voter registration system on Election Day in 2016, but election officials caution against any reports of widespread hacking.

In an April response to inquiries from a House Legislative Oversight Committee panel, the Election Commission tallied 149,832 rejected attempts to access South Carolina’s voting system on Nov. 8, 2016. State Election Commission Executive Director Marci Andino says that total is not solely comprised of criminal intrusion.

SAM SPENCE
  • Sam Spence
"The firewall filters internet activity for things that are not allowed. Those are not purely attempts to hack the system," says Andino. "And really, those failed attempts show that the firewall currently in place is working."

Andino said data on online activity from previous general elections is unavailable, but a spike in activity on scvotes.org on Election Day is expected. Compared to the almost 150,000 blocked attempts to access the voter registration system on Election Day, there were 113,372 blocked attempts on Dec. 13 and 76,993 attempts on Jan. 10, 2017.

According to Andino, "There is no indication that hackers have been able to access voter information data or any part of the election infrastructure" in South Carolina.

Andino says that news reports touting the almost 150,000 "hacking attempts" came to her attention following a story in the Wall Street Journal that ran with a photo caption stating, “Hackers tried to access the state’s voter-registration system nearly 150,000 times on Election Day, according to a report by the State Election Commission.” The South Carolina Election Commission’s response to the Oversight Committee does not specifically describe the 150,000 blocked attempts as attacks from hackers, instead referring to the total as the "number of blocked attempts."

This report comes after officials with the Department of Homeland Security testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee late last month that groups tied to the Russian government had attempted to hack election computer systems in 21 states.

Last August, multiple news outlets reported that the FBI was urging states to beef up their cyber security leading up to the 2016 presidential election after security breaches were discovered in Illinois and Arizona’s voter registration databases. In July of 2016, Illinois election officials were notified that the State Board of Elections fell victim to a cyber attack detected July 12, which targeted the Illinois Voter Registration System database.

The Illinois State Board of Elections reported that the database was not accessed through the online firewalls, but through a vulnerability on the election commission’s public web page that applicants may use to check the status of their online voter registration application. A notice sent last summer to election officials from the Illinois Board of Elections stated, "This was a highly sophisticated attack most likely from a foreign (international) entity. We have found no evidence that they added, changed, or deleted any information in the ... database. Their efforts to obtain voter signature images and voter history were unsuccessful."

In response to inquiries from the House Oversight Committee panel on what information from voter registration databases is available for sale, the South Carolina Election replied that any registered voter in South Carolina can purchase a list of registered voters, which can include information such as name, address, age, gender, race, participation in the last two statewide primaries and statewide general elections, date of registration, and registration status."

The Election Commission added that "County boards of voter registration and election may charge a fee under the Freedom of Information Act for voter information when requested, but the county boards do not offer voter registration information for sale."

The Election Commission added that "County boards of voter registration and election may charge a fee under the Freedom of Information Act for voter information when requested, but the county boards do not offer voter registration information for sale."

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