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The bill would authorize block grants for states to upgrade outdated voting technology.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 LankfordAbbott slams Ben & Jerry's for Palestine support: 'Disgraceful' Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Republican calls on Oklahoma to ban Ben & Jerry's MORE (R-Okla.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSchumer urges GOP to ignore Trump: He's 'rooting for failure' Trump pressures McConnell, GOP to ditch bipartisan talks until they have majority Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (R-Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden DACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight MORE (R-S.C.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharBiden signals tough stance on tech with antitrust picks Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks Competition laws could be a death knell for startup mergers and acquisitions MORE (D-Minn.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Will Pence primary Trump — and win? Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law MORE (D-Calif.), and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichSenate panel advances controversial public lands nominee in tie vote A plan to address the growing orphaned wells crisis Schumer vows to only pass infrastructure package that is 'a strong, bold climate bill' 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 NielsenEx-Trump official: 'No. 1 national security threat I've ever seen' is GOP Left-leaning group to track which companies hire former top Trump aides Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' MORE, President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race 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.