Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen introduced new legislation Thursday to prevent foreign ownership or control of companies that support U.S. election systems.
The move comes after state leaders were caught by surprise earlier this year upon learning a Russian oligarch has financial ties to one of Maryland's elections vendors.
"My jaw dropped. I mean I was shocked," Van Hollen told the News4 I-Team.
State officials have said there's so far no evidence of wrongdoing, but Van Hollen, a Democrat, said he doesn't want to take a chance.
"Look, we've seen Russian interference in our elections when they don't control the elections infrastructure," Van Hollen said. "If they're actually inside the house and messing around, that poses a big risk and certainly an unnecessary risk in my view."
He introduced the Protect Our Elections Act Thursday, along with Cardin and Republican Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine. Among its provisions, it would require vendors to disclose to the Department of Homeland Security, the Election Assistance Commission and state and local governments whether a foreign national has direct or indirect control of their company.
The legislation would not have any impact on the upcoming election in November but Van Hollen hopes Congress will take it up this session.
ByteGrid LLC is responsible for maintaining the data in several of Maryland's key election systems, including voter registration and online ballot delivery. The company purchased an existing Maryland elections vendor in 2015. State officials did not know ByteGrid was funded by a firm called AltPoint Capital, whose main investor is a Russian billionaire that state officials have said has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
ByteGrid has said its investors are not involved in its operations.
Maryland State Board of Elections Deputy Administrator Nikki Charlson told the I-Team the ByteGrid contract is still in place and the company has been complying with new, additional monitoring and reporting requirements.
Charlson said the company has also been cooperating with a Department of Homeland Security investigation of ByteGrid's access to the state's election management systems and that federal authorities so far have found no "adversary presence" in its networks.
State elections officials were already planning to review the future of the ByteGrid contract after the November election, but Charlson said replacing the vendor in advance of the midterms wasn't an option.
"We learned about this in mid-July, and so the process to procure a new data center and move the data without jeopardizing the election was not something that we could do," Charlson said, adding: "Right now [we're] focusing on securing the election and making sure that everything is working for voters."
Van Hollen told the I-Team evidence of tampering isn't necessary to take preventative measures.
"It's kind of like the arms race. You always have to be one step ahead of the adversary," he said.
If the new legislation passes, Maryland and other states would have until the 2020 elections to comply.