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The bill would authorize block grants for states to upgrade outdated voting technology.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 LankfordGOP advances rules change to speed up confirmation of Trump nominees GOP senator calls Omar's apology 'entirely appropriate' New battle lines in war over Trump’s judicial picks MORE (R-Okla.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCongress must step up to protect Medicare home health care Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration MORE (R-Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPence met with silence after mentioning Trump in Munich speech The Memo: Trump and McCabe go to war Graham seeks new Rosenstein testimony after explosive McCabe interview MORE (R-S.C.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharNewsom endorses Kamala Harris for president Pollster says current 2020 surveys like picking best picture Oscar before movies come out O’Rourke heading to Wisconsin amid 2020 speculation MORE (D-Minn.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisKamala Harris shopping trip stirs Twitter campaign trail debate Sanders expected to announce exploratory committee next week Bill Maher to Dems: ‘Let’s not eat our own’ in 2020 MORE (D-Calif.), and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichOvernight Defense: Dems aim to block use of defense funds for wall | Watchdog issues new warning on Syria withdrawal | Trump wants to 'watch Iran' from Iraq Senate Dems introduce bill to block Trump from using military funds to build wall Puerto Rico statehood supporters pin hopes on House action 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 taps FEMA official to lead agency Unscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Will there be any last-minute shutdown drama? MORE, President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand backs federal classification of third gender: report Former Carter pollster, Bannon ally Patrick Caddell dies at 68 Heather Nauert withdraws her name from consideration for UN Ambassador job 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.