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The Year Ahead: Pressure mounts on election security as 2020 approaches

Pressure is already mounting on Congress to secure the 2020 presidential race from foreign cyberattacks or interference just weeks after the midterm elections.

Lawmakers expressed frustration at failing to pass a bill during the current session, but are vowing to resume their work in January.

“Yeah, it’s next Congress,” Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordCPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be Republicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars Overnight Health Care: US surpasses half a million COVID deaths | House panel advances Biden's .9T COVID-19 aid bill | Johnson & Johnson ready to provide doses for 20M Americans by end of March MORE (R-Okla.) told The Hill last week. Lankford and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOpen-ended antitrust is an innovation killer FBI, DHS and Pentagon officials to testify on Capitol riot Five big takeaways on the Capitol security hearings MORE (D-Minn.) in 2017 introduced the bipartisan Secure Elections Act, seen as the best shot of passing legislation before the midterms.

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“[Klobuchar] and I are not going to drop it, we’re going to keep working it through, but it’s not going to be the next two weeks,” Lankford vowed.

Lawmakers, though, will take up their work with less time to bridge differences and before the 2020 cycle moves to full swing. And there may be new questions for lawmakers to address.

Congress had high hopes of passing election security legislation after the intelligence community concluded in January 2017 that Russia had interfered in the presidential election. But those hopes were dashed when a GOP-led committee held up the Lankford-Klobuchar bill earlier this year, a decision some Democrats blamed on the White House.

The House version of the legislation will also suffer a blow come January, as two Republicans in the bipartisan group of four behind the bill — Reps. Tom RooneyThomas (Tom) Joseph RooneyHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Hill-HarrisX poll: 76 percent oppose Trump pardoning former campaign aides Dems fear Trump is looking at presidential pardons MORE (Fla.) and Trey GowdyTrey GowdyPompeo rebukes Biden's new foreign policy The Hunter Biden problem won't go away Sunday shows preview: Joe Biden wins the 2020 election MORE (S.C.) — retire.

There has been widespread frustration, with some Democrats lashing out at President TrumpDonald TrumpSacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Sorkin uses Abbie Hoffman quote to condemn Capitol violence: Democracy is 'something you do' Ex-Trump aide Pierson planning run for Congress MORE.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSunday shows - Trump's reemergence, COVID-19 vaccines and variants dominate Warner: White House should 'keep open additional sanctions' against Saudi crown prince Sunday shows preview: 2024 hopefuls gather at CPAC; House passes coronavirus relief; vaccine effort continues MORE (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia’s election interference, said at an event at the Center for a New American Security on Friday that the White House was responsible for blocking the bill.

“In a normal administration, in a normal world, after we had a foreign nation attack our basic election system the way the Russians did ... the only entity that could really bring about increased election security would be presidential or White House leadership,” Warner said.

“That didn’t happen,” he added.

Supporters insist they are ready to try again, this time with a House under Democratic control and with Republicans dealing with the National Republican Congressional Committee’s own data breach during the midterm cycle.

But there are obstacles ahead, including the divided Congress.

Senate Democrats like Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate Democrats nix 'Plan B' on minimum wage hike Senate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill House Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike MORE (Ore.) have introduced legislation to guard election systems from cyberattacks, earning praise from election security advocates. But those measures are unlikely to move in the GOP-controlled Senate. Legislation that House Democrats move will also need to find support in a Senate that will have 53 Republicans.

Klobuchar has taken the lead on pushing bipartisan measures, and less comprehensive bills may stand a better chance of reaching Trump’s desk.

Last month, she introduced a bill with Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan Sanders votes against Biden USDA nominee Vilsack Senate confirms Vilsack as Agriculture secretary MORE (R-Alaska) to create a global information-sharing program on best practices for election security. The measure is a companion to a similar bill passed in the House earlier this year and backed by Reps. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroState Department establishes chief officer in charge of diversity Texas governor faces criticism over handling of winter storm fallout DC bureau chief for The Intercept: Impeachment managers became 'like the dog who caught the car' when permitted to call witnesses MORE (R-Texas) and Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsHow scientists saved Trump's FDA from politics Liberals howl after Democrats cave on witnesses Kinzinger calls for people with info on Trump to come forward MORE (R-N.C.).

Klobuchar said in a statement to The Hill that, in 2016, the U.S. and its allies “weren’t fully prepared to take on the threat of election hacking from foreign adversaries.”

“There are lessons to be learned from the last two elections—we can and should share that expertise and coordinate with our international allies,” she said.

Despite criticism, the administration has highlighted the issue at times.

Trump earlier this year signed an executive order requiring the director of national intelligence to investigate whether any foreign interference took place during U.S. elections, and then hand over the findings to the departments of Treasury and State to determine if any penalties, such as sanctions, are necessary.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisRejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs The GOP senators likely to vote for Trump's conviction MORE said last month that Russia interfered in the November elections, the first confirmation from the administration of election meddling in the midterms.

The Justice Department also indicted a Russian national just days ahead of the midterms for taking part in an ongoing election interference effort. The woman was alleged to be part of Project Lakhta, a Russian influence operation, rather than a plot to attack U.S. election infrastructure.

Congress has taken some steps, to be sure. Lawmakers this year authorized $380 million in funding for states to secure their election systems.

But that funding largely did not arrive in time for the states to fully utilize it in the 2018 midterms. And election officials note that there is no consistent source of funding for election security, a provision they want remedied in an election security law.

Funding to help states will be a top priority in the coming year.

Jim Condos, the secretary of state for Vermont and the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) told The Hill that states need to have funding on a regular basis to make sure voting equipment is up to date. He said there often simply isn’t enough money in state budgets to make election security a priority.

He hopes Congress moves quickly on election security because it often takes time for states to implement new technology and requirements.

“I think, as we gear up for 2020, I would hope that Congress would recognize the urgency,” Condos said. “They might think we don’t have to deal with this ‘til late 2019 or early 2020, but we need to deal with it now.”

NASS has not taken an official stance on election security legislation.

Last week’s revelations that four top staffers at the National Republican Congressional Committee, a GOP campaign arm, likely had their emails surveilled by hackers added urgency to ensuring that political campaigns and groups are guarded from cyberattacks.

But that will also be a new question for lawmakers to struggle with. It’s unclear who is responsible for political groups’ cybersecurity.

Campaign officials generally are ill-equipped to make cybersecurity a priority. And Homeland Security officials have said that it’s difficult for them to offer cybersecurity support for groups like the Democratic and Republican national committees because their work is inherently political.

Generally, more than two years after the 2016 election, Congress faces a lengthy to-do list.

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a federal agency tasked with helping state and local officials carry out elections, has suggested that it may take up the issue of how to protect political campaigns and groups.

But the agency is currently one short of the minimum three commissioners needed to enact major policy moves.

The Senate Rules Committee just last week advanced two nominees for the vacant  spots.

Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntPartisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Microsoft, FireEye push for breach reporting rules after SolarWinds hack MORE (R-Mo.) told reporters last week that he is encouraging Senate leadership to bring up the nominees for a vote before the end of this Congress, but also said he won’t bring up broader election security issues in the lame-duck.

Condos said a fully staffed Election Assistance Commission is essential to helping states administer their elections. He added that the agency could work with the Homeland Security Department on the issue.

But that depends on Congress acting.

“[The EAC] needs to be fully complemented, to be fully funded, to be fully staffed to deal with the issues that we have,” he said.