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The bill would authorize block grants for states to upgrade outdated voting technology.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 LankfordSenate GOP poised to go 'nuclear' on Trump picks GOP senators eye 'nuclear' move to change rules on Trump nominees Senate GOP goes down to wire in showdown with Trump MORE (R-Okla.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate GOP poised to go 'nuclear' on Trump picks Overnight Health Care: CDC pushes for expanding HIV testing, treatment | Dem group launches ads attacking Trump on Medicare, Medicaid cuts | Hospitals, insurers spar over surprise bills | O'Rourke under pressure from left on Medicare for all Dem group launches ads attacking Trump's 'hypocrisy on Medicare and Medicaid cuts' MORE (R-Maine), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMcConnell calls McCain a 'rare patriot' and 'American hero' after Trump criticism The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Dems put manufacturing sector in 2020 spotlight GOP steps up attack over tech bias claims MORE (R-S.C.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharWarren, Klobuchar call on FTC to curtail use of non-compete clauses Republican strategist predicts his 2020 Dem primary final four Chicago mayor race mirrors national push for more women in office, says columnist MORE (D-Minn.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJ.J. Abrams, Shonda Rhimes to host Kamala Harris fundraiser Warren, Klobuchar call on FTC to curtail use of non-compete clauses Pollster says 'it's certainly not looking good' for Trump ahead of 2020 MORE (D-Calif.), and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichDems introduce bill requiring disclosure of guest logs from White House, Trump properties Senate Dems seek to turn tables on GOP in climate change fight Senate Dems introduce bill demanding report on Khashoggi killing 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 NielsenHillicon Valley: Nunes sues Twitter for 0 million | Trump links tech giants to 'Radical Left Democrats' | Facebook settles suits over ad discrimination | Dems want answers over spread of New Zealand shooting video Nielsen calls for greater public-private collaboration on cyber threats The Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms MORE, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump mocks wind power: 'When the wind doesn't blow, just turn off the television' Pentagon investigator probing whether acting chief boosted former employer Boeing Trump blasts McCain, bemoans not getting 'thank you' for funeral 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.