Bipartisan House committee members agree on cyber threats to elections, if not how to address it

Bipartisan House committee members agree on cyber threats to elections, if not how to address it
© Getty

Members of two House Science subcommittees drilled experts about the security of voting machines during a hearing Tuesday afternoon, putting the spotlight on election security as congressional Democrats continue to push for action on the issue. 

House members were given the chance to discuss the vulnerabilities of voting systems during a hearing held by the House Science subcommittees on investigations and oversight and on research and technology. While there was disagreement over specific Democrat-backed election security bills, subcommittee members seemed to come together over the need to address cybersecurity risks to voting machines.

ADVERTISEMENT

“When it comes to cybersecurity, the threat is constantly changing,” investigations subcommittee Chairwoman Mikie SherrillRebecca (Mikie) Michelle SherrillHillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant Bipartisan bill to secure election tech advances to House floor Our commitment to veterans can help us lead for all Americans MORE (D-N.J.) said. “It is our responsibility in Congress to help states arm themselves with advanced, adaptive strategies to prevent, detect, and recover from intrusions.”

Investigations subcommittee Ranking Member Ralph NormanRalph Warren NormanHotel industry mounts attack on Airbnb with House bill GOP lawmakers call for provisions barring DOD funds for border wall to be dropped Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess MORE (R-S.C.) said that the security of election systems is of “great importance,” while research and technology subcommittee Chairwoman Haley StevensHaley Maria StevensRussian judge orders ex-Marine to be detained through December on espionage charges House calls on Russia to release Paul Whelan or else provide evidence of wrongdoing Pelosi-backed group funding ads for vulnerable Democrats amid impeachment inquiry MORE (D-Mich.) said that “security must be a priority at every step of our cherished democratic process.”

Research and technology subcommittee Ranking Member Jim BairdJames BairdHonoring service before self News outlets choose their darlings, ignore others' voices Hillicon Valley: White House to host social media summit amid Trump attacks | Pelosi says Congress to get election security briefing in July | Senate GOP blocks election security bill | Pro-Trump forum 'quarantined' by Reddit | Democrats press Zuckerberg MORE (R-Ind.) referred to Russian interference in 2016, specifically its targeting of 21 states’ voting systems, in noting “there is no doubt there is a need for improved security of our elections.”

However, this bipartisan spirit broke down somewhat during times that members discussed the Securing America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act, which the House is scheduled to vote on this week. The bill was approved along party lines by the House Administration Committee last week and fast tracked to the House floor for a vote. It would authorize millions in funding for states to address election security issues, and establish cybersecurity standards for voting machines. 

Norman described the Democrat-backed SAFE Act on Tuesday as being sent to the floor “in order to satisfy far-left progressives with yet another messaging bill that thankfully has no chance of ever being considered by the Senate.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial On The Money: Pelosi, Trump tout deal on new NAFTA | McConnell says no trade vote until impeachment trial wraps up | Lawmakers push spending deadline to Thursday McConnell: Senate impeachment trial will begin in January MORE (R-Ky.) has consistently refused to allow a vote on a variety of Democrat-backed election security measures in recent weeks, despite constant Democratic pressure on him to move forward on this issue.

Rep. Michael WaltzMichael WaltzBill introduced to give special immigrant visas to Kurds who helped US in Syria Republicans storm closed-door hearing to protest impeachment inquiry Overnight Defense: Trump ousts Bolton in shocker | Fallout, reaction from GOP senators | Senate spending talks in chaos | Dems eye vote to nix Trump border emergency MORE (R-) added that “I would have hoped we could have worked toward some bipartisan solutions” prior to the SAFE Act being voted on by the House. He noted that he and Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyBlue Dogs issue new call for House leaders to abide by pay-go rule Trump administration unveils new plan for notifying public on 2020 election interference Overnight Health Care: House Dems clash over Pelosi drug pricing bill | Senate blocks effort to roll back Trump ObamaCare moves | Number of uninsured children rises MORE (D-Fla.) are working to put together legislation creating an “alerts framework” that would ensure that election officials and congressional members are notified if election infrastructure is targeted by a foreign government.

Despite pushback on this legislation, witnesses at the hearing, who included individuals from academia, government agencies, and state election groups, were united in the need to secure systems against cyber attacks.

One way this being done is by federal agencies themselves. 

Charles Romine, the director of the information technology laboratory at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), announced that NIST plans to issue an “election profile” of its framework of cybersecurity standards, widely voluntarily used by organizations across various sectors to ensure security.

Romine described this profile as being a “one-stop cybersecurity playbook” that can be used by state and local election officials to prioritize areas of elections where cybersecurity could be improved.

In addition to the election profile, NIST has been working with the Election Assistance Commission to put together version 2.0 of the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (VVSG). These guidelines are a set of requirements against which voting machines can be tested to ensure they meet basic security, functionality, and accessibility.

John Benaloh, the senior cryptographer for research at Microsoft, testified that Microsoft supports the ability for the VVSG 2.0 to support the auditability of elections, and he hoped they would lead to “more current” and updated technology being used.

Benaloh also argued that Congress should create incentives for states to update election infrastructure to secure voting machines, noting that “this would greatly help us in moving forward towards a more secure ecosystem.”