Stalled election security bill is reborn with support from Senate Intelligence Committee

Sen. Mark Warner at FedTalks in June 2013. (FedScoop)

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the Senate Intelligence Committee is reintroducing a bill that aims to bolster election cybersecurity.

The purpose of the original Secure Elections Act is intact: to facilitate communication between the federal government and the state and local offices that run elections, to expedite security clearances for those officials and to provide financial support for state election infrastructure. Changes include making funding available to local election jurisdictions and create an election security advisory panel, among other things.

The new bill retains its five original bipartisan co-sponsors, but notably now includes leaders from the Senate Intelligence Committee — Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who serves as the chair and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who is the vice chair.

“Our democracy is under attack by foreign actors who seek to undermine and destabilize our country,” Burr said in a press release. “This bill will help strengthen our cybersecurity heading into upcoming election cycles, and has provisions to ensure that threat information is promptly shared with the states.”

The reintroduction comes a day after the committee grilled Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on how DHS is coordinating security efforts with state and local election officials.

“Elections – at all levels – are central to our democracy, to our institutions and to our government’s legitimacy,” Warner said. “We need to make sure states and localities have the resources and federal support they need to make election security a top priority.”

Updates to the bill include a provision for grant money originally allocated to states to be funneled to local jurisdictions. The bill directs the Election Assistance Commission to dole out grants to election offices that receive “cyber hygiene” scans and vulnerability assessments from DHS. Other grants would fund organizations that replace electronic voting machines with ones that produce a paper trail. Election agencies can also receive reimbursements for conducting statistical risk-limiting audits by hand after an election.

The focus on paper is borne out of concern that paperless systems can’t be properly audited if voting and tabulating systems are tampered with. Many states that employ paperless systems are taking steps to make the switch because of cybersecurity concerns.

The revised bill also directs the EAC to establish an nine-member advisory panel of election cybersecurity experts. The panel was under DHS in the original bill.

Notably missing from the updated bill is a “Hack the Election” program. The program, proposed in the original bill, would invite independent security researchers to probe election equipment in order to find vulnerabilities. Lawmakers did not say in the release why the change was made.

“This revised Secure Elections Act adequately helps the states to prepare our election infrastructure for the possibility of interference from not just Russia, but possibly another adversary like Iran or North Korea or a hacktivist group,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.m the bill’s main author. “Although funding for election security was included in the Omnibus appropriations bill, Congress still must pass the Secure Elections Act in order to put needed election improvements into law.”

A piece of the original bill is expected to pass separately by Friday in a $1.3 trillion governmentwide spending bill. That provision would appropriate $380 million for states to make election security improvements.

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election security, James Lankford, Mark Warner, Richard Burr, secure elections act
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