Dems unveil push to secure state voting systems

Dems unveil push to secure state voting systems
© Greg Nash

A group of Democratic senators is introducing a bill aimed at securing U.S. elections from hacking efforts, the latest response to attempted Russian interference in the 2016 presidential vote. 

The bill introduced Tuesday is specifically designed to ensure the integrity of and bolster confidence in the federal vote count.

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It would require state and local governments to take two steps to ensure that votes are counted correctly. Under the legislation, states would have to use voting systems that use voter-verified paper ballots that could be audited in the event a result is called into question.

State and local officials would also be required to implement what are known as “risk-limiting audits” — a method that verifies election outcomes by comparing a random sample of paper ballots with their corresponding digital versions — for all federal elections.

Both steps have been endorsed by cybersecurity professionals as a way to ensure confidence in the vote count. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenSomalis in US to keep protected status Hillicon Valley: Officials pressed on Russian interference at security forum | FCC accuses Sinclair of deception | Microsoft reveals Russia tried to hack three 2018 candidates | Trump backs Google in fight with EU | Comcast gives up on Fox bid Maxine Waters defenders gather to counter far-right protest that doesn’t happen: report MORE has also recommended that states transition to voting systems that generate paper backups that can be audited.

“Congress must act immediately to protect our democracy from cyberattacks. Any failure to secure our elections amounts to disenfranchising American voters,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHouse passes measure blocking IRS from revoking churches' tax-exempt status over political activity Senators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS Senate panel advances Trump IRS nominee MORE (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. 

“For Americans to have confidence that their votes count, and that election results are free and fair, there absolutely have to be paper ballots and mandatory audits for each and every federal election,” Wyden said. 

Currently, five states use paperless voting machines that do not produce a paper backup, and many more have mixed voting infrastructure with some localities using paperless systems. Twenty-two states do not legally require post-election audits.

Revelations of Russian meddling have triggered fears about the possibility of future interference efforts that could cast doubt on the outcome of U.S. elections.

The Department of Homeland Security revealed last year that Russian hackers targeted election-related digital systems, such as voter registration databases and websites, in 21 states as part of a broader plot to interfere in the 2016 vote. In a small number of cases, hackers succeeded in breaking into systems. 

Officials maintain that none of the targeted systems were involved in actual vote counting, and that there is no evidence any votes were changed.

Some security experts say it would be difficult to wage a hacking campaign against voting machines, which are not connected to the internet and are typically stored in secure facilities. Experts say it's unlikely that hackers could actually have a material impact on the vote. Others, however, are more skeptical of the security of voting systems. 

“Why would we give foreign adversaries the opportunity to hack into our voting systems when we have better, more secure alternatives?” Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyControversial Trump judicial nominee withdraws Anti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE MORE (D-Ore.), one of the bill’s sponsors, said Tuesday. He added that the legislation represents a “critical step toward protecting one of our nation’s most precious assets: the integrity of our democracy.” 

There have been other attempts in Congress to address election security at the state level. A bipartisan group of senators is currently trying to attach election security legislation to a must-pass defense policy bill moving through the upper chamber. 

And Congress already sent $380 million to states to upgrade old voting equipment and shore up cybersecurity as part of a massive funding package approved in March. 

The bill introduced Tuesday is sponsored by Sens. Wyden, Merkley, Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandTrump: ‘Dems have a death wish’ Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas Senate Democrats block resolution supporting ICE MORE (D-N.Y.), Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDemocrats slam Trump for considering Putin’s ’absurd’ request to question Americans Hillicon Valley: Mueller indicts Russians for DNC hack | US officially lifts ZTE ban | AT&T CEO downplays merger challenge | Microsoft asks for rules on facial recognition technology | Dems want probe into smart TVs Dems push FTC to investigate smart TVs over privacy concerns MORE (D-Mass.), Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayDems to propose legislation to prevent ICE from shackling pregnant women Top Dems urge Trump officials to reverse suspension of ObamaCare payments Dems launch pressure campaign over migrant families MORE (D-Wash.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOn The Money: Trump rips Fed over rate hikes | Dems fume as consumer agency pick refuses to discuss border policy | Senate panel clears Trump IRS nominee Dems fume as Trump's consumer bureau pick refuses to discuss role in border policy Trump vows to hold second meeting with Putin MORE (D-Mass.).