House-passed election bill takes aim at foreign interference

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A sweeping elections bill passed by the House on Wednesday night would boost cybersecurity measures and focus on countering foreign interference efforts like the kind that affected the 2016 and 2018 elections.

The bill, which the House passed on a mostly party-line vote of 220-210, marks a major effort by Democrats to tackle both voting reforms, such as increasing access to the polls through use of mail-in ballots, and cybersecurity upgrades.

Among issues included in H.R. 1 is a requirement that states use voter-verified paper ballots as part of the election process, a move supporters have pointed to as a vital safety net to check votes in the event of election tampering.

It also allocates funding to enable the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to give grants to states to replace outdated and potentially insecure voting machines, along with authorizing funds for states to carry out election audits.

Further, states would be required to take steps to strengthen the security of voter registration databases against cyberattacks, test voting systems nine months before each federal general election, and mandate the director of national intelligence to submit a report to both Congress and each chief state election official detailing cybersecurity threats prior to federal elections.

The White House would also be pulled into the effort to defend against threats to elections, with the president required to produce a national strategy to defend democratic institutions, and produce an implementation plan for this strategy, within 90 days of the bill becoming law. 

“The time is now to ensure each American has the same free, fair, secure, and equitable access to the ballot,” House Administration Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who spearheaded the bill, said in a statement Wednesday night.

The House passed a similar measure in the previous Congress, but it failed to advance in the Senate.

Amendments addressing both cybersecurity and disinformation threats to elections were also included in the House-passed version of the For the People Act on Wednesday.

The bill includes bipartisan legislation introduced by Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.) that addresses foreign disinformation by requiring the inclusion of disclaimers on political content on social media in the U.S. if they are funded by a foreign agent.

“This amendment would help protect against foreign influence that seeks to sow political division and promote dangerous disinformation,” Spanberger, a former CIA officer, said on the House floor ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

An amendment cosponsored by Reps. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) was included in the bill to establish a senior cyber policy adviser at the EAC to help coordinate the agency’s election cybersecurity efforts.

Langevin said in a statement earlier this week that the position, recommended by a congressionally established cybersecurity commission he serves on, will “help prevent cyber incidents of significant consequence, including those that threaten our democracy.”

“I strongly believe that a senior figure at the EAC must have responsibility for cybersecurity policy in order to ensure this important element of election administration is appropriately prioritized,” Langevin said. “These changes will meaningfully improve the cybersecurity of our elections, something we can all agree is vital.”

Efforts to strengthen election security against foreign and domestic interference efforts have been ongoing since 2016, when Russian agents launched a sweeping attack ahead of the presidential election, using both disinformation on social media and cyberattacks on state voting systems.

Russian disinformation efforts were also seen during the 2018 midterm elections, and top federal officials announced last year prior to the 2020 presidential election that they had seen efforts by both Russia and Iran to sway the election.

Republicans have pushed back strongly against H.R. 1, arguing it would federalize elections and take power away from the states.

“We don’t need a bill that moves election administration decisions further away from the people,” House Administration Committee ranking member Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) said in a statement following the bill’s passage. “People should have more say in how their elections are run, not less. But this is exactly what H.R. 1 does. I urge all of my colleagues in the Senate to stand with the American people and reject this bill as well.”

The measure now heads to the Senate, where it’s unlikely to garner much if any GOP support.

The bill was introduced separately there in January by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) as the first bill introduced after Democrats gained the majority in the Senate.

President Biden on Thursday applauded the House passage of H.R. 1, while noting that he was looking forward to “working with Congress to refine and advance this important bill.”

Tags Abigail Spanberger Amy Klobuchar Charles Schumer Donald Trump EAC Election Security Elections For the People Act foreign interference Jeff Merkley Jim Langevin Joe Biden John Katko Mike Gallagher Rodney Davis Zoe Lofgren
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