State Officials Meet to Discuss Russian Investment in Election Vendor

On the day they certified the results of the June 26 primaries, members of the Maryland State Board of Elections met in closed session Thursday to get a “security briefing” –  in part to discuss the recent warning from the FBI that a Russian oligarch is now the lead investor in the private equity firm that owns a key agency vendor. The news that Russian billionaire Vladimir Potanin, a man reported to have close ties with President Vladimir Putin, is the largest investor in Altpoint Capital Partners, the firm that owns ByteGrid LLC, reverberated around Annapolis the day it was announced late last week by legislative leaders.  ByteGrid performs numerous web and IT functions for the Board of Elections.  David J. McManus Jr., chairman of the Maryland State Board of Elections  Members of the state board would not confirm any details of their closed-door meeting Thursday, nor would Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone. Lamone said the federal Department of Homeland Security won’t begin working with her agency until mid-August. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R), Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) wrote to DHS last week, within hours of their meeting with four FBI agents, to request the feds’ assistance. “We are doing everything possible here [that] we can to make sure that the data is secure and not tampered with,” Lamone said.  “We have no evidence and neither does the FBI, whatsoever, that there has been any kind of malfeasance by this group, and we’ve asked the Department of Homeland Security to do further checks, which they’re going to be doing,” she said. Lamone said she expects DHS to spend “several weeks” working with her agency to make sure voter registration data, vote-counting equipment and other systems remain secure. David J. McManus Jr., chairman of the state elections board, said it was premature to talk about changing vendors. Election Day is less than four months away. “The contract hasn’t been canceled,” he said. “We haven’t done anything yet, other than investigate.” Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) is also investigating the state’s contract with ByteGrid. “Change of ownership is relevant, and under the circumstances we find ourselves in now, change of ownership with Russian involvement is something to be looked at,” McManus said. “It’s not automatically suspect or illegal, but it’s something to be looked at, and that’s what we’re doing.” While it may not currently be “illegal” for a foreign entity or investor to own a company that provides computer support to state elections boards, some federal lawmakers think it should be. Maryland Democratic Reps. Jamie Raskin and Steny H. Hoyer on Thursday introduced the Election Vendor Security Act, a measure to “address vulnerabilities in our election systems that could be exploited by foreign actors,” Raskin said in a statement. “Because so much of election administration has been privatized, there’s a whole subculture there which we have not subdued under the law,” Raskin said Friday. “We’ve got to make sure that we don’t have foreign agents and foreign actors manipulating our election systems through private contractors and vendors.”  The Raskin-Hoyer bill would prohibit election vendors from being owned or controlled by foreigners. They would be required to report within 10 days any “attempts at foreign intrusion or sabotage.” And they must adhere to “cyber-hygiene best practices,” the lawmaker said.  Other Maryland Democrats, including Reps. John K. Delaney, Anthony G. Brown, Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger and John P. Sarbanes, have signed on as cosponsors.  They “are obviously very anxious about the problem of foreign influence over private election vendors,” Raskin said.  Rep. Andrew P. Harris, the state’s only Republican member of Congress, has not signed on, nor have any other GOP lawmakers, though Raskin is hopeful they will.  “There’s nothing partisan about it. The problem is that a lot of my Republican colleagues have been preferring to stick their heads in the sand and deny that there are any problems,” Raskin said. Earlier this week, Harris and Delaney co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that requires that election systems vendors associated with federal elections be owned and controlled by domestic companies. Raskin praised Hogan for “making some good noises” about “potential Russian influence with our state election vendor.” In a statement earlier this week, Annie Eissler, ByteGrid’s chief marketing officer, said the firm’s “investors have no involvement or control in company operations.” “ByteGrid Holdings LLC maintains secure and compliant IT hosting infrastructure for companies and organizations that value data privacy and protection,” the statement continued. “We stand by our commitment to security in everything we do, and do not share information about who our customers are and what we do for them.” [email protected]

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