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Data firm says Russian investors had no access to Maryland's voting system

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Nikki Charlson, deputy state administrator for the Maryland State Board of Elections discuss Russian investment in state election system. (Thalia Juarez | Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A state Board of Elections vendor whose ties to a Russian investor are under investigation said Monday the investor has no access to Maryland’s voting system.

Annie Eissler, chief marketing officer for the vendor, ByteGrid LLC, sought to assuage worries from top Maryland leaders after the FBI last week alerted them to ties between the company and a Russian oligarch.

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ByteGrid LLC owns the servers that hold the Maryland data for voter registration, candidacy, election management, and election night results, state elections officials said.

“ByteGrid's investors have no involvement or control in company operations,” Eissler said. “We stand by our commitment to security in everything we do.”

At a hastily called news conference Friday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the FBI informed them and Gov. Larry Hogan that without the state’s knowledge, a Russian investor had bought the software vendor in 2015.

Miller called the news “shocking” but said the FBI did not indicate that Maryland elections had been compromised.

The FBI investigates whether a Maryland "computer glitch" that might have wiped as many as 80,000 voters off election rolls for last month's primary was part of Russia's alleged hacking of U.S. elections.

“We felt it imperative that our constituents know that a Russian oligarch has purchased our election machinery,” Miller said.

The men said they have asked Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh to investigate the contract, and have asked federal officials to help the State Board of Elections review the system to ensure that there have been no breaches.

Deputy election administrator Nikki Charlson said officials would audit existing data, review their defenses and implement any changes to secure the systems before November’s general election.

Four FBI agents informed state officials Thursday that ByteGrid LLC has ties to a Russian oligarch, Miller and Busch said.

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An ownership stake in the company was purchased by AltPoint Capital Partners, whose largest investor is a Russian oligarch named Vladimir Potanin, officials said.

Busch said that Potanin is “very close” to Russian President Vladimir Putin and that Altpoint’s managing partner is Gerald T. Banks, a Russian millionaire who changed his name from Guerman Aliev.

But Busch said the state has no evidence that Potanin or Banks had done anything untoward.

Several thousand voters who were affected by a Motor Vehicle Administration computer glitch discovered just before the June 26 primary may have skipped voting rather than cast provisional ballots, state elections statistics show.

Eissler said ByteGrid “maintains secure and compliant IT hosting infrastructure for companies and organizations that value data privacy and protection,”

Busch and Miller’s news conference Friday came hours after the U.S. Department of Justice indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers, charging that they hacked the computer networks of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The 11-count indictment alleges that the Russian agents infiltrated the networks, implanting malicious computer code and stealing documents on field operations, opposition research and campaign analytics as a way of interfering with the election.

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The charges include conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S., aggravated identity theft and money laundering.

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