Democrats propose $1.7 billion in grants for election security

Democrats propose $1.7 billion in grants for election security
© Camille Fine

A Democratic congressional task force convened to study U.S. election security on Wednesday unveiled new legislation to help protect voting infrastructure from foreign interference.

The legislation would authorize more than $1 billion in federal grants to help states replace outdated voting technology, train employees in cybersecurity and conduct audits of elections to ensure the accuracy of their result.

It represents the latest push in Congress to address Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election through legislation and follows bipartisan efforts in the House and Senate to address election vulnerabilities and deter future foreign meddling.

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The task force members are sponsoring the bill, which is informed by their meetings with former officials, state election officials and election security experts over the past six months. The task force also released a final report on Wednesday summing up their findings and recommendations.

The Democrats on Wednesday accused the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress of not doing enough to address the threat.

“The first primary of the election of 2018 is March 6, only 20 days away. The general election will take place in less than nine months,” Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), one of the task force leaders, told reporters at a news conference. “We do not have a minute to waste.”

The new legislation, called the Election Security Act, would authorize $1.7 billion over the next decade to provide funds for state election officials to replace outdated paperless voting systems with new machines that provide a voter-verified paper backup, allowing for an audit in the case a result is called into question.

The measure provides for a $1 billion cash infusion in the first year and $175 million nine years thereafter for states to maintain election security. 

It would establish a $20 million grant program to provide states funds to conduct “risk-limiting audits,” which check election outcomes by comparing a random sample of paper ballots to the corresponding digital results. Last year, Colorado became the first state to require such audits on a regular basis.

States would only be able to use funds allocated under the bill to purchase goods and services that are produced by election vendors designated as “qualified” by the Department of Homeland Security and the Election Assistance Commission. 

In addition to authorizing grants, the legislation also would trigger a number of actions at the federal level.

Homeland Security would be required to “expand” aid to state election officials by expediting security clearances for these officials and starting risk and vulnerability assessments in states that ask for them within 90 days of the request.

The legislation would also require the director of national intelligence to conduct a “full-scope” assessment of threats to election systems at least six months before an upcoming general federal election.

Finally, the bill would direct President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE to issue a strategy on how to protect American democratic institutions from cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and other such operations. 

Brady and Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonDemocrats make U-turn on calling border a 'manufactured crisis' Democrats make U-turn on calling border a 'manufactured crisis' Hillicon Valley: Facebook unveils new cryptocurrency | Waters wants company to halt plans | Democrats look to force votes on election security | Advertisers partner with tech giants on 'digital safety' | House GOP unveils cyber agenda MORE (D-Miss.), the ranking members of the House Administration Committee and the Homeland Security Committee, respectively, formed the task force last summer out of frustration that their committees were not investigating Russian interference in the election.

Reps. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: Senate sets hearing on Facebook's cryptocurrency plans | FTC reportedly investigating YouTube over children's privacy | GOP senator riles tech with bill targeting liability shield | FAA pushed to approve drone deliveries Hillicon Valley: Senate sets hearing on Facebook's cryptocurrency plans | FTC reportedly investigating YouTube over children's privacy | GOP senator riles tech with bill targeting liability shield | FAA pushed to approve drone deliveries House votes against curtailing warrantless collection of Americans' data MORE (D-Calif.), Jim LangevinJames (Jim) R. LangevinHouse passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams Hillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers seek 'time out' on facial recognition tech | DHS asks cybersecurity staff to volunteer for border help | Judge rules Qualcomm broke antitrust law | Bill calls for 5G national security strategy MORE (D-R.I.), Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondHouse hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate House hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate Lawmakers demand answers on Border Patrol data breach MORE (D-La.) and Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsDemocrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony Democrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony Democrats fume, say Hicks declines to answer questions MORE (D-Fla.) are also members of the task force. 

Their final report accuses the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers of refusing to “pursue the facts and defend our democracy” a year after the U.S. intelligence community publicly accused Russia of orchestrating an influence campaign against the 2016 election. 

“The unprecedented attack by Russia exposed serious national security vulnerabilities in our election infrastructure,” the report states.

Their report comes just more than a year after the U.S. intelligence community said that Moscow used cyberattacks and disinformation to influence the 2016 presidential election. It has since been revealed that Moscow tried to probe election-related systems in 21 states, most of which did not amount to actual breaches. 

While officials maintain that there is no evidence Russia changed any vote tallies, the revelations have nevertheless ignited fears that elections could be vulnerable to cyber sabotage.

The Democrats’ bill also comes two months after a bipartisan slate of senators introduced legislation to strengthen election security at the state level, in part by authorizing block grants for states to replace outdated voting machines with those that produce paper backups. 

Lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate have also unveiled proposals that would penalize foreign actors for meddling in U.S. elections, in an effort to deter future interference efforts. 

The proposals have not gone anywhere thus far. Meanwhile, fears have been mounting that Russia could try to interfere in the this year's midterm elections, only months away.

On Tuesday, top U.S. intelligence officials warned lawmakers that they expect Moscow to target the elections.

“There should be no doubt that Russia perceived its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” said Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHillicon Valley: Tim Cook visits White House | House hearing grapples with deepfake threat | Bill, Melinda Gates launch lobbying group | Tech turns to K-Street in antitrust fight | Lawsuit poses major threat to T-Mobile, Sprint merger Hillicon Valley: Tim Cook visits White House | House hearing grapples with deepfake threat | Bill, Melinda Gates launch lobbying group | Tech turns to K-Street in antitrust fight | Lawsuit poses major threat to T-Mobile, Sprint merger House Intel to take first major deep dive into threat of 'deepfakes' MORE during testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.