Lawmakers quiz officials on 2020 election security measures

Lawmakers questioned federal officials Wednesday about the importance of passing election security measures ahead of the 2020 contests, pressing witnesses on the threat posed by foreign actors to influence U.S. elections.

Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), testified during the House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday that the federal government is “lightyears ahead” of where it was in 2016 when it came to communicating with state and local officials.

But he said improving outreach and communication with those officials is a top priority for his department ahead of 2020.

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Krebs also said that being able to audit elections is a pressing issue for his agency, and that records of votes, like paper trails, will help officials confirm election results.

The DHS official added that basic cybersecurity remains a crucial issue, saying he fears any gaps could expose vulnerabilities in systems that could be abused by hackers.

Election security emerged as a top priority for security officials after the U.S. intelligence community determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. That interference was largely tied to Russians’ alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, which resulted in the release of damaging emails in the lead-up to Election Day.

Since then, potential vulnerabilities with voting machines have been highlighted as another way bad actors could interfere with U.S. elections.

Thomas Hicks, chairman of the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), testified on Wednesday that states would need between $500 million and $1 billion to replace all outdated voting equipment. He said that it’s up to each state to decide on when they would replace their systems, which is largely based on funding available at the time.

The EAC has guidelines on how states can use and maintain aging voting equipment when officials can afford upgrades, Hicks said.

Congress allocated $380 million to states in 2017 to make improvements to their voting systems. Several states did not use the funds ahead of the 2018 midterms, but are able to use them in the future.

Democrats, including House Homeland Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Homeland Security chairman calls on new Trump aide to reestablish cyber coordinator House Democrat urges Trump to address online extremism at UN MORE (Miss.), pressed federal officials on Wednesday about the threats posed to U.S. systems from foreign actors.

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security found in a classified report submitted to the White House earlier this month that there was no foreign interference in the 2018 midterm elections.

Krebs said he stood by that assessment, but noted there were ongoing foreign influence campaigns aimed at swaying Americans' opinions at the time of the November election.

Republicans on the House panel used the hearing as an opportunity to criticize a sweeping government reform package, H.R. 1, put forth by Democrats that includes several election security and voting rights measures.

GOP lawmakers took issue with provisions like one that requests a paper trail for every ballot cast, a move they said was a form of federalism and too large a burden for states.

Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHillicon Valley: 8chan owner defends platform before Congress | Facebook launches dating feature | New York City sues T-Mobile | Top NSA cyber official names ransomware as 2020 threat | Blue Dog Dems urge action on election security 8chan owner defends platform in testimony before Congress Conservatives lash out at CNN for hiring Andrew McCabe MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the committee, said after the hearing that he wished the panel were working on a separate election cybersecurity measure instead of the ones included in H.R. 1, calling the legislation a “political instrument.”

“Since we have primary jurisdiction over cybersecurity — and I’ve told the chairman this — I’m hoping we can come back to this and we do start marking up some legislation that will have a chance of becoming law,” Rogers told The Hill.

He added that he wants to meet with the leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to talk about "what we think can be done and work to get something enacted, because this is is an important topic area.”