HARRISBURG – The University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security launched a Blue Ribbon Commission on Thursday with a goal of helping to ensure the integrity of the state's voting in the 2020 election.
The commission will be led by Pitt Cyber’s founding director David Hickson, a former U.S. Attorney, and Grove City College President Paul McNulty, a former U.S. Deputy Attorney General.
“As a battleground state, Pennsylvania’s election architecture is a prime target for malicious actors. The state’s election security requires immediate and concerted attention. We must secure Pennsylvania’s vote,” Hickton said.
The move comes just weeks after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered counties across the state to replace their voting machines, including a provision requiring that all voters be backed up with a paper ballot.
In most of the state, voters now use electronic voting machines that don’t provide a paper ballot.
Hickton said Wolf’s move “is a great step, but it’s not a solution.”
McNulty agreed that the move to use paper backup ballots makes sense as a means of reinforcing public confidence in the system, even if it “does feel like in some ways, we’re moving backwards.”
While the implications of Russian involvement in the 2016 election has become a bitterly partisan issue, McNulty said that there is a broader recognition that the state and nation’s voting system are not secure enough.
Intelligence analyses completed after the election suggested the system was vulnerable to hacking, he said.
“No one was denying it,” he said. “I don’t see this as something that is focused on raising questions about the 2016 election but of helping create confidence” in future elections.
J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf, said administration officials plan to meet with members of the commission.
But he added that the Department of State is making its own efforts and working with the federal Department of Homeland Security to ensure the integrity of the state’s voting system.
“The Department of State continues to work with federal and state law enforcement to share information and remain vigilant on current and emerging threats to ensure all Pennsylvanians can be confident their ballots are cast and counted accurately,” Abbott said. “By working together, we are strengthening our systems and staying ahead of hackers.”
Abbott added that to limit exposure to hacking, voting system computers are not connected to the Internet.
The Blue Ribbon Commission, which in addition to Hickton and McNulty, includes 20 business, legal and government leaders.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh will serve as senior advisors to the effort.
Hickton said the effort is focused on examing the cybersecurity of the voting system in three ways:
-- The cybersecurity of voting machines, tabulation and storage;
-- The cybersecurity of voter registration, rolls and databases; and
-- And the resiliency and recovery of Pennsylvania’s electoral system following a potential breach.
Hickton said the aim isn’t to replace the work of the county and state officials who put on the state elections but to lend expertise in an unprecedented way to spell out ways to better protect the system.
He said he’s unaware of any similar effort on this scale in this country.
Hickton pointed to a warning last fall from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that the federal government had evidence that Russian hackers tried to penetrate the voting systems of 21 states, including Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren said Thursday that state officials have not uncovered any evidence that the attempted hack of the state’s voting system was successful in anyway.
Hickton said it’s by no means the first time that hackers have tried to disrupte the nation’s elections.
While the 2016 election hacking attempts have the subject of intense and prolonged controversy there were problems in 2008 and 2012, as well, he said.
As hackers get better at what they do, it becomes more imperative for the government and those who want to protect the integrity of its elections to make sure that our voting system are more secure, as well, McNulty said.
“There is a real issue here that needs to be addressed,” he said.