Bipartisan group of lawmakers backs new election security bill

Bipartisan group of lawmakers backs new election security bill
© Camille Fine

A bipartisan coalition of Senate lawmakers introduced legislation on Thursday meant to strengthen U.S. election cybersecurity following Russian election interference.

The bill would authorize block grants for states to upgrade outdated voting technology. It would also create a program for an independent panel of experts to develop cybersecurity guidelines for election systems that states can implement if they choose, and offer states resources to implement the recommendations.

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In addition, the legislation aims to expedite the process by which state officials receive security clearances necessary to review sensitive threat information and instructs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal entities to more quickly share this information with relevant state officials. 

The “Secure Elections Act” was introduced Thursday morning by Sens. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordOvernight Defense: House approves 3 billion defense bill | Liberal sweeteners draw progressive votes | Bill includes measure blocking Trump from military action on Iran Senators urge Trump to sanction Turkey for accepting Russian missile shipment Acosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers MORE (R-Okla.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet MORE (R-Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet Why Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Memo: Toxic 2020 is unavoidable conclusion from Trump tweets MORE (R-S.C.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharKlobuchar fundraises for McConnell challenger: 'Two Amys are better than one' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet MORE (D-Minn.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden's health care gaffe shows he's not ready for prime time The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress MORE (D-Calif.), and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichHillicon Valley: Harris spikes in Google searches after debate clash with Biden | Second US city blocks facial recognition | Apple said to be moving Mac Pro production from US to China | Bipartisan Senate bill takes aim at 'deepfake' videos Senators unveil bipartisan bill to target 'deepfake' video threat Senate Democrats wish talk on reparations would go away MORE (D-N.M.).

According to DHS, Russian hackers targeted election-related systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 vote. While most of the targeting activity involved preparations for hacking such as probing systems for vulnerabilities, voter registration databases in both Arizona and Illinois were breached by hackers. 

The targeting was part of a broader effort by Russia to meddle in the presidential election, according to the U.S. intelligence community. Officials maintain that the systems targeted by Russia were not involved in vote tallying.

Still, the revelation has spurred concerns on Capitol Hill about the potential for foreign hackers to target state election systems in 2018 and beyond. 

“Russia tried to interfere in our elections. Although they didn’t change actual votes or alter the outcome, their efforts were an attack on our democracy,” Lankford said in a statement.

“It is imperative that we strengthen our election systems and give the states the tools they need to protect themselves and the integrity of voters against the possibility of foreign interference,” he said. “In this new digital age, we should ensure the states have the resources they need to protect our election infrastructure.” 

There have been few efforts in Congress to create legislation to address state election cybersecurity in particular. In October, Sens. Collins and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced a bill that would set up a grant program for states to upgrade outdated voting technology and establish a bug bounty program for election systems manufacturers. 

Meanwhile, a pair of House Democrats has pushed for appropriators to allocate the remaining $400 million from the Help America Vote Act for states to upgrade their voting equipment. 

DHS designated election infrastructure as critical in the waning days of the Obama administration, opening up vote tabulation locations, voter registration databases and other systems to federal protections in states that request them. The decision prompted negative reactions from some state and local officials who feared it signaled a federal takeover of elections.

Homeland Security, which is responsible for engaging with critical infrastructure operators on cybersecurity, has since stood up a coordinating council for the election infrastructure subsector in order to engage with relevant officials on potential threats. 

Earlier this week, both Lankford and Klobuchar wrote to Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele Nielsen Trump's family separation policy has taken US to 'lowest depth possible,' says former immigration lawyer Four heated moments from House hearing on conditions at border facilities Chuck Todd on administration vacancies: 'Is this any way to run a government?' MORE, President TrumpDonald John Trump GOP lawmaker decries 'send her back' chants: 'This ugliness must end' Trump primary challenger Bill Weld responds to rally chants: 'We are in a fight for the soul of the GOP' Cruz calls for 'every penny' of El Chapo's criminal enterprise to be used for Trump's wall after sentencing MORE’s new secretary of Homeland Security, urging her to make election security at the state level a priority. 

“We must do everything in our power to protect our democracy from future attacks,” they wrote. “Time is of the essence, the next federal election is less than a year away.” 

The bill’s path forward is uncertain, though its bipartisan backing could bode well for its passage. Other measures focused on election security have not gotten a vote.

Lawmakers are currently laser-focused on cementing a deal to fund the government before the holidays, ahead of a looming Dec. 22 deadline.

This post was updated at 12:47 p.m.