Dems want tougher language on election security in defense bill

Dems want tougher language on election security in defense bill
© Greg Nash

Democrats are complaining that the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) set for a Senate vote this week doesn’t go far enough to protect election security.

The bill includes a number of provisions that would tighten security, but Democrats — who for much of the year have targeted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Democrats file brief against Trump, 'the Framers' worst nightmare' Iran resolution supporters fear impeachment will put it on back burner MORE (R-Ky.) on the issue of election security — say it lacks key safeguards that would help prevent foreign meddling, including post-election audits of the results and requirements for states that do not use paper ballots.

While the concerns won’t prevent the Senate from approving the massive bill, they are likely to lead to complaints as Democrats continue to press the issue of election security next year.


“We can’t mandate that, but we could say if you want to take the federal money, you’ve got to meet these prerequisites,” Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Apple, Barr clash over Pensacola shooter's phone | Senate bill would boost Huawei alternatives | DHS orders agencies to fix Microsoft vulnerability | Chrome to phase out tracking cookies Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech Sen. Warner calls on State Department to take measures to protect against cyberattacks MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said of the paper ballot issue. “I still don’t think we’re as protected as we should be going into the 2020 election.”

Audits is one of the issues focused upon by critics of the bill who say it does not provide enough security.

Post-election audits are recommended ways of securing election results and ensuring interference did not occur. New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice has recommended them as an essential step to secure elections, writing in a 2018 paper that risk-limiting audits are “an easy and efficient method for verifying that vote tallies are accurate.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is in the process of publishing reports based on the findings of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, recommended that states “begin to implement audits of election results.” It said audits “may be the simplest and most direct way to ensure confidence in the integrity of the vote.”

Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Trump turns up heat on Apple over gunman's phone | Mnuchin says Huawei won't be 'chess piece' in trade talks | Dems seek briefing on Iranian cyber threats | Buttigieg loses cyber chief House Democrats request briefings on Iranian cyber threats from DHS, FCC Democrats sound election security alarm after Russia's Burisma hack MORE (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he agreed with Warner on the need for post-election audits.

“Post-election audits are important, that is really the only verifiable way of determining whether or not the ballots are legitimate or not, to have some kind of procedure, so I think [Warner’s] concern is warranted,” Thompson said. 


Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), the former chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on cybersecurity, told The Hill that he “would have liked to have seen more done with post-election audits.”

“That really is one of the key cornerstones of ensuring confidence in election outcomes and that everything is being done the right way, and that every vote was counted in the way the voter intended it to be cast,” Langevin noted.

Other groups took issue with what they described as weak election security language.

Brett Edkins, the political director for nonprofit political action group Stand Up America, told The Hill that “while this is a small step in the right direction, it falls short of the drastic action we need to protect our democracy from foreign interference.”

Edkins criticized McConnell and other Senate Republicans for being “obstacles to fully funding election security measures in all 50 states,” in reference to battles between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate as to whether to provide more funds to states to ensure election security, and around how much to give states. 

Congress appropriated $380 million for states to use for election security efforts in 2018, with more due to be included in the annual appropriations bill set to be debated next week. 

The bill does require the Department of Homeland Security to submit a report to Congress on any cyberattacks against U.S. election infrastructure during the 2016 presidential election. 

It also mandates the creation of an “assessment” by multiple federal agencies of current foreign threats to U.S. elections, and the creation of a cross-agency “strategy for countering Russian cyber threats to U.S. elections.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's newest Russia adviser, Andrew Peek, leaves post: report Hawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' MORE backs the bill, and tweeted earlier this week that he intended to sign it “immediately.”

Rep. Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisBoth sides of the aisle call for local, state, federal cooperation on homelessness Voting equipment companies throw weight behind enhanced disclosures Voting machine vendors to testify on election security MORE (Ill.), the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, told The Hill in a statement that “the election security measures in NDAA are a win for states to help them better secure our elections and protect the ballot.”

Davis also pushed back on the notion that language on post-election audits should have been included in the NDAA, saying that many states are already independently instituting audits. 

“The majority has argued that post-election audits should have been included from the federal level,” Davis said. “However, many states are already working to implement these into their election systems in an appropriate timeline that makes sense. I’m excited by that, states should be able to make these types of decisions without federal interference.” 

Davis added that “forcing states to adopt this as a federal mandate could cause many unforeseen issues for state and local election officials in the implementation process.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states and the District of Columbia already require post-election audits, while four states — Colorado, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia — have statutory requirements to conduct the most intensive risk-limiting audits. 

Langevin told The Hill that despite his concerns over the exclusion of some election security issues, he was overall pleased that the NDAA was addressing the topic.

“I’m broadly pleased that we are doing our part to strengthen election security and making sure we are prepared going into the 2020 elections so that we will again have an all-hands on deck approach to protecting the security of our elections,” Langevin said.