Election agency prepares to tackle foreign interference

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are eying a once-struggling agency to take the lead on ensuring U.S. elections are secure.

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC), first created in 2002 in response to the controversial 2000 presidential election, has been given new life as officials across the federal government try to figure out the best way to combat foreign election interference.

The agency has been unable to tackle major policy actions since March when one of the commissioner’s terms expired. And that came on the heels of criticism for not initially taking election interference seriously in 2016.

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But two agency nominees have been making their way through the Senate, and their expected confirmation, either this year or next, will fully staff the four-member commission and help the EAC start a new chapter helping states administer and secure their elections from outside interference.

EAC Commissioner Christy McCormick said in an interview with The Hill that when she and fellow Commissioner Thomas Hicks arrived at the agency in 2015, “there was no question that the agency was pretty precarious.”

In the years after it was established, many GOP lawmakers questioned the agency’s existence and threatened to eliminate it, saying it didn’t appear to have an impact on helping carrying out elections.

McCormick said she and the other commissioners at the time -- Hicks and Matt Masterson -- decided they wanted the agency to be focused on making sure election officials have the resources they need to administer elections.

These days the commissioners say they’re largely focused on making sure voters feel secure in turning in their ballots, and aren’t driven away by fears that their vote could be compromised.

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Those concerns were sparked primarily by the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that found Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. The EAC also caught heat for its reaction to the meddling, with a Yahoo News report this year detailing how the agency initially downplayed the foreign interference efforts.

McCormick defended the commission’s past statements, telling The Hill that at the time there “was a lot of bad information out there that was hurting voting confidence.”

Hicks and McCormick acknowledged that countries like Russia, China and Iran continue to try to interfere in U.S. elections, and they said they’re working to make sure voters aren’t discouraged from voting over the threat of a potential hack.

“Voters keep hearing this stuff over and over and over again, and now they don't think that our system is secure,” McCormick said. “And that's not true, it is secure and we haven't had any hacks of the votes. That doesn't mean the Russians aren’t continuing to try.”

The interference has also caused Congress to warm up to the agency, with senators saying they now see a role for the EAC in helping to keep elections secure.

Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Lawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Senate Democrats vow to keep pushing for more funds for mail-in voting MORE (R-Mo.) said after a vote on the two EAC nominees that he had wanted to eliminate the agency in the past.

“I do think the commission has now found a new mission and it’s an important one,” Blunt said. “And I look forward to our oversight responsibility, but also working with the commission as they do everything they can to help give state and local election officials the kind of help they need from the federal government to do their job.”

Hicks said those comments are a sign that Congress and the agency can work more closely in the future.

“It's not this talk of getting rid of the agency anymore, it's how can we make the agency stronger and help the states with their elections overall,” Hicks said.

The commissioners said the small federal agency has largely had its hands tied since now-former Commissioner Matthew Masterson departed in March, leaving them one official short of a quorum and unable to take significant policy action. 

Masterson has since joined the Department of Homeland Security, where he works on election security issues.

Nominees Benjamin Hovland and Donald Palmer were advanced by a Senate committee earlier this month.

If both are confirmed by the Senate, the agency’s first major action would likely be a review its current standards for voting machines used in elections, according to McCormick and Hicks, who say the extra bodies will allow commissioners to visit more states and talk to election officials on the ground about the kinds of issues they’re facing.

For example, Hicks said he was able to visit Bay County in Florida, which was struck by Hurricane Michael shortly ahead of the November midterm elections. He said the trip helped him understand the devastation the community experienced, and that will help shape agency guidelines on what election officials can do in cases of natural disasters.

“[Bay County’s] election director is a former Navy SEAL, weeping because he's just so devastated from the disaster,” Hicks said of his trip.

While election interference has been at the forefront of conversations, the EAC’s leadership said the issues that largely dominated the November elections were technical or related to other problems like natural disasters.

They also said they’re open to taking on new challenges, like offering cybersecurity support to smaller campaigns that aren’t privy to the resources of a national party.

Cyberattacks on groups like the Democratic National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have spotlighted the basic cyber vulnerabilities still plaguing political organizations. Smaller campaigns have also reported breaches, including three Democratic congressional candidates in California this year.

EAC Executive Director Brian Newby said the agency might consider offering resources to local election officials, like best practices for cybersecurity, that could then be distributed to candidates.

The commissioners said they would be in favor of such a proposal, as long as it steered clear of any political bias.

“We don't want to make it harder for voters or harder for candidates in any way, but we do want to make sure that what we do is secure,” McCormick said. “And we want to provide whatever resources we can to the locals who might not have the ability to create hose resources for candidates.”

“So it's not really getting into politics so much as it's getting into making sure the whole system is secure from end to end,” she added.

The commissioners added that they hope election officials will be innovative about encouraging more Americans to vote.

For example, West Virginia allowed citizens living overseas to vote on mobile devices using blockchain technology, a move that ended up sparking concerns among security researchers who said it opened the votes to cyber manipulation.

But both McCormick and Hicks celebrated the move, saying they didn’t want security concerns to fully override technology that could help more citizens cast ballots.

“The main thing to think about the security experts, is that there's no voting system that doesn't have some vulnerability,” Hicks said. “So it's how do you mitigate that and still allow for people to cast their ballots.”