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The bill would authorize block grants for states to upgrade outdated voting technology.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 LankfordTrump-Graham relationship tested by week of public sparring Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Trump insists Turkey wants cease-fire | Fighting continues in Syrian town | Pentagon chief headed to Mideast | Mattis responds to criticism from Trump Senate GOP braces for impeachment trial 'roller coaster' MORE (R-Okla.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe On The Money: Senate fails to override Trump veto over border emergency | Trump resort to host G-7 next year | Senators to push Turkey sanctions despite ceasefire | McConnell tees up funding votes MORE (R-Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Graham: 'Stupid' for Trump to ask China to investigate Biden Turkey sanctions face possible wall in GOP Senate MORE (R-S.C.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDeVos calls Democratic presidential hopeful's education plans 'crazy' Senate Democrats want Warren to talk costs on 'Medicare for All' Biden struggles to reverse fall MORE (D-Minn.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren says she will unveil plan to finance 'Medicare for All' Kamala Harris reacts to supporter who got tattoo of her handwriting Even with likely Trump impeachment, Democrats face uphill climb to win presidency MORE (D-Calif.), and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichSenate confirms Trump's Air Force secretary pick Commerce Department to develop stats on income inequality Senators take fundraising efforts to Nats playoff games 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 NielsenTrump confirms Rick Perry to step down as Energy secretary Trump says acting Homeland Security chief McAleenan will step down Activists to demonstrate at ICE headquarters after Cameroonian immigrant dies in custody MORE, President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' 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.