Election 2020

Bipartisan Senators Sound Election Cybersecurity Alarm with New Bill

A voter casts his primary vote in Hialeah, Fla., on Aug. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation today to strengthen election cybersecurity ahead of the 2018 midterms and help prevent foreign interference in future elections.

The Secure Elections Act is sponsored by Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), joined by original co-sponsors Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Lankford, joined by Klobuchar, told MSNBC this morning that interference “absolutely happened during the 2016 time period — the Russians were trying to engage,” so now lawmakers have to tackle how to protect the system in the future.

“States should continue to run elections. But we have got 12 states that can’t audit their election systems right now. It took almost a year for the federal government to be able to contact some of the states that the Russians were trying to probe their system,” he said. “So we have got to speed up the communications between the federal government and the states. We’ve got to bolster up the states and what they’re doing to make sure they can audit their systems and find a good way to be able to cooperate together or we’ll run into the same thing all over again.”

Klobuchar found it “unbelievable” that state election heads “don’t always have the clearance to get warnings about this information.”

“So one of the things we do in the bill is put forth some requirements that they get those security clearances so then they’re able to share information, in addition to a grant program, which, by the way, amounts to 3 percent of the cost of one aircraft carrier,” she said. “When you think of our national security, with this cyber war that we’re seeing, that will allow states to use the money to upgrade their equipment, get backup paper ballots and really make things safer for all Americans because, you know, we can talk about this all we want.”

“A major hack into an election,” she noted, “when 42 states haven’t upgraded their equipment in 10 years… undermines the very democracy that’s the foundation of our country.”

Lankford, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, outlined some of the benchmarks state election systems need to be able to meet: “Is their equipment auditable? Can you actually run a ballot there and then to be able to verify it?”

“If there’s someone that hacks into that system, we lose all credibility in that system. They’ve got to be able to have a backup verification. About 12 states can’t do that. Quite a few of the other states, their voting machines, they’ll take them; they’ll upgrade them beforehand. We have got to know the supply chain,” he continued. “Is the supply chain verifiable? Are the Russians trying to engage in trying affect any of the software on those machines beforehand?”

Klobuchar noted that the intelligence community has identified at least 21 attempts at hacking state election equipment in 2016.

Lankford and Klobuchar wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen this week asking her to prioritize election cybersecurity in her new job.

“State and local election officials are on the front lines of our democratic process. It is wrong to leave them defenseless against sophisticated cyber hackers backed by the Kremlin and other adversaries,” the senators wrote.

“We have worked across the aisle with colleagues from both the Senate and the House to develop legislation that would help protect our election systems. Our Senate legislation requires DHS cooperation and leadership on establishing information sharing processes and improving election cybersecurity. Given your significant experience across administrations, within the Department, and on issues of cybersecurity, we are hopeful that under your leadership DHS will make securing our election infrastructure a top priority,” the letter continued. “We must do everything in our power to protect our democracy from future attacks. Time is of the essence, the next federal election is less than a year away.”