By: Drew Marvel
In 2013, the State of Maryland entered into a five-year, $7.5 million procurement contract with ByteGrid LLC, a company specializing in computer systems, data management, and software engineering. The deal outsourced, among other things, many of the State Board of Elections’ online systems and election data, including the state-wide voter registration and candidacy platform, the election-management system, the online ballot-delivery system, and the site which reports the unofficial results on election night. All of these election systems, and the voter information and data associated with them, are now housed and stored on servers owned and operated by ByteGrid LLC.
What Maryland officials didn’t know was that in 2015 ByteGrid LLC was quietly acquired by Altpoint Capital Partners, a financing company whose principal investor is Vladimir Potanin, a wealthy Russian oligarch linked to Vladimir Putin and the Russian government.
News of ByteGrid’s source of funding did not become known to Maryland officials until July 2018, when the FBI briefed them on the private contractor’s connections to Russia. Governor Hogan and leaders in the Maryland General Assembly promptly held a press conference to inform the public of the newly discovered information, an announcement that came only hours after the Department of Justice announced their indictment of twelve Russians involved in the 2016 hack of the DNC.
Maryland officials immediately took action, requesting that the Department of Homeland Security assist the State Board of Elections in conducting an extensive evaluation of the State’s electoral infrastructure and security measures to determine if there had been any breaches in the system’s defenses and whether any corrective actions were needed to address potential vulnerabilities. Additionally, Maryland’s Senators have asked for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to conduct a rigorous investigation into AltPoint Capital’s investment in ByteGrid LLC to address concerns that Mr. Potanin’s connections to the Russian government could pose a threat to Maryland’s or America’s election infrastructure.
In an attempt to assuage the public’s concerns, ByteGrid’s Chief Marketing Officer issued a statement regarding the investigations, asserting that “ByteGrid’s investors have no involvement or control in company operations,” and that ByteGrid continues to stand by their commitment to security in all of their operations.
Aside from state and federal officials’ initial statements that they had no reason to suspect any wrongdoing or security breaches had occurred, there has been no further information given about the status of these investigations or their findings. We are now two months out from the next time Marylanders will go to the polls, and yet there still remain serious questions and doubts about the security and integrity of Maryland’s election systems as they stand now.
The fact that a foreign-controlled business entity was able to acquire and continue operating a privately-owned government contractor that was integrally involved in the United States’ democratic process without state officials becoming aware is concerning. When the State continues to utilize that same contractor for their electoral systems despite having knowledge of their foreign ownership, it is not only concerning – it may violate the Maryland Constitution.
Article I, section 7 of the Maryland Constitution states: “The General Assembly shall pass Laws necessary for the preservation of the purity of Elections.” (emphasis added). This language suggests that the General Assembly has a constitutional obligation to enact legislation designed to protect and ensure that elections in Maryland are free, fair, and legitimate. Given the very real threats of hostile foreign actors attempting to influence and interfere in the American democratic process, allowing a Russian-owned entity to continue operating the State’s election systems undermines the integrity of Maryland’s elections across the board. Even assuming that there is zero evidence that ByteGrid, their operations, or their systems have been involved in any wrongdoings, the image that their continued involvement creates is that of a process that could potentially be compromised. And in the public’s eye, even a small amount of doubt has the potential to grow into a view that an election or its outcome was impure.
Despite these very real concerns, there has been surprisingly little action from Maryland lawmakers in regards to their continued use of ByteGrid’s servers to provide election services and infrastructure. At the federal level, on July 19, 2018, Congressmen Andy Harris (MD-1) and John K. Delaney (MD-6) introduced the Protecting Election Systems from Foreign Control Act, a bipartisan bill that would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to require states to take steps to ensure that all vendors involved in federal elections are owned and controlled by domestic companies. (H.R. 6449, 115th Cong. (2018)). The bill would require states to reexamine their election vendors at least once a year to ensure that they remain qualified, meaning domestically owned and operated, in addition to creating a national database to verify and keep track of all qualified electoral systems vendors in the country. Currently, the bill has been referred to the House Committee on House Administration.
Perhaps Maryland officials have decided that without any evidence to the contrary, their retention of ByteGrid to house and operate various State election systems poses no significant threat to the integrity or security of the upcoming 2018 elections. With ByteGrid’s contract set to expire in 2019, it may be that Maryland officials have decided to let the deal run its course. Whatever the case, state officials need to be more vocal in showing the public that when Marylanders go to the polls, the process will be secure, legitimate, and pure. Moving forward, state officials should strongly consider, and arguably may even be constitutionally obligated to, selecting an election vendor which is fully owned, operated, and funded domestically to avoid even the slightest notions of illegitimacy.