voting scrutiny (Bakhtiar Zein/Shutterstock.com)

Pushing the Senate to pass the Secure Elections Act

A collection of high-profile experts and former government officials are urging the Senate to pass a bipartisan bill that would significantly boost federal aid to states and localities to secure their election systems.

A Feb. 21 letter signed by 21 former intelligence officials, members of Congress, secretaries of state and cybersecurity experts calls on Congress to pass the Secure Elections Act. The bill, introduced in December 2017, would authorize block grants to states to buy upgraded voting machines, direct the Department of Homeland Security to "promptly" share election cybersecurity threat information and boost the number of state and local election officials with security clearances.

The signers highlight the bill's measures to replace paperless voting machines, institute mandatory post-election audits and open up the financial and intelligence resources of the federal government to underfunded state and local governments, saying the framework strikes "a careful balance" between state and federal government in administering free and fair elections.

"States and municipalities cannot be left on their own to defend against sophisticated cyberattacks from foreign powers," the letter reads. "Just as the federal government provides state and local governments with grants to support security personnel and first-responders on the front lines of addressing terrorism and other national security threats, this legislation will enable prudent federal and state cost-sharing to deal with pressing cybersecurity issues."

Some sponsors of the Secure Elections Act have used Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Feb. 16 indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three organizations on charges of conspiracy and fraud to influence the 2016 election to stump for the bill, which has not passed the committee referral stage.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) released a statement shortly after the indictments were announced promoting the bill and arguing there are "clear bipartisan solutions" on the table for securing election infrastructure.

"It's clear Special Counsel Mueller is moving forward with his investigation of Russia's interference in our elections," said Klobuchar. "[W]hat's not clear is what Congress is going to do to prevent it from ever happening again."

However, another lead sponsor, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), told Meet the Press on Feb. 18 that he disagrees that the executive branch is doing nothing around election security, citing the work DHS is doing coordinating with states and localities. While he said he still hopes Congress will pass the Secure Elections Act, Lankford implied that the administration was already implementing many of its core recommendations.

"Much of what we have in that piece of legislation…this administration has started doing already," said Lankford. "That is security clearances for individuals and states, getting information to them much faster and trying to be able to make sure that information is auditable."

However, Lankford did not mention one of the bill's most high-profile provisions: dedicated federal funding for states to purchase upgraded voting machines. Members of Congress and cybersecurity experts have expressed concern that many states and localities are not investing in new voting machines or security measures, and many election officials in turn cite a lack of funding as the primary culprit.

The Election Assistance Commission and the National Institute for Standards and Technology are looking to address some of the larger holes in voting machine security through updated voluntary standards that it expects to formally roll out in May or June 2018.

EAC Chair Matthew Masterson told FCW that the commission purposely designed the deliberative process around the new standards to be as open and transparent as possible so that election officials can follow along and get an early head start on procurement and security decisions.

"Election officials have participated, voting system manufacturers have participated, advocates and academics have participated and so the entire community engaging in these discussions has a feel and a recognition for where [the standards] are going," said Masterson.

However, he acknowledged that it would likely take at least two to four years after the standards are published for them to work their way through the state and local budgeting and purchasing processes so that new machines could be deployed. That means that, absent a sudden infusion of new funding, many states will be relying on the same outdated machines for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

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