WASHINGTON – A group of Democrats are recommending the GOP-led House of Representatives appropriate money “immediately” for states to upgrade their “aging” Information Technology (IT) infrastructure to secure the midterm elections from foreign interference.
Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), sponsor of the Election Security Act, said the total amount needed for election security is $1.8 billion.
“We have $1 billion to deal solely with the issuance of paper ballots, but overall we’re talking about $1.8 billion, which is the total amount, but that’s to be spent over a period of time doing various things. We have to do training, we have to test our systems, we have to do the audits – all those things are proposed,” Thompson said at a press conference last month announcing the Election Security Task Force’s final report.
“We can’t run the system, but we spent on HAVA [Help America Vote Act of 2002] about $3.6 billion when we created that. Our challenge now is to put some structure to the investment. HAVA was a good first start. Now, what we have is to put the systems in place. We did not get the systems required for the enemy we face now and that’s why we are coming forward with this,” he added.
According to an outline of Thompson’s bill, “election officials can use this grant provided to replace aging voting machines with voter-marked paper ballot voting systems. Additionally, states can use these grants to help cover the costs of hiring IT staff, cybersecurity training, security and risk vulnerability assessments, and other steps to secure election infrastructure.”
Thompson said it’s difficult in the current environment of technological advances to “push people to go back to the paper ballot.”
“But we think for validation purposes, for auditing, there’s nothing like the paper ballot,” he said. “Now we can count it on a scan or something, but ultimately if there’s a question about the integrity of the ballot and other things, there’s nothing like the physical document.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed with Thompson. “A paper ballot has always been to us the sign of integrity in an election and nothing spoke more eloquently to that than in Florida in 2000,” she said.
Thompson said the Democratic lawmakers on the task force would like to see the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) manage the nation’s election strategy.
“We’re trying to create a national strategy… right now we have no strategy,” he said. “We propose a commission to manage it overtime to make sure we stay current.”
The task force’s report recommends expanding the EAC.
“Since 2011, Republicans have made several attempts to eliminate the EAC. In June 2011, a bill to terminate the Commission reached the House floor, but failed to gain enough votes to pass under suspension of the rules,” the report read. “Instead of attempting to terminate the agency, the president should nominate and the Senate should confirm a fourth commissioner, and Congress should work to provide the EAC with more resources so it can provide more robust assistance to states on election security issues.”
Pelosi said the task force’s report serves as a “blueprint” for the Trump administration to follow for election security.
“They have refused to take inventory of what our resources are and need to be. They have refused to assess what the danger is to our electoral system. While the intelligence community has clearly, by consensus, told them what it would be,” Pelosi said at the news conference. “They now have a blueprint on how we can proceed, presented by this distinguished task force in the form of legislation – upgrade the systems, put the resources there to do so, reinforce the idea that… critical infrastructure designation is very important, and yet there are some on the other side who are trying to undermine that designation.”
According to the task force’s final report, “The Brennan Center estimates that the cost to replace paperless DREs [Direct-Recording Electronic machines] would be between $130 and $400 million. However, that figure does not include the additional cost associated with replacing VVPAT [Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail] systems.”
The report also said, “Congress has money available that they could use to help states replace their old machines. HAVA authorized $3 billion to meet the statute’s requirements, and over $300 million remains to be appropriated. Congress should act immediately to allow states to use this money.”
Pelosi and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) said Congress should pass the Election Security Act now, which establishes an “Election Assistance Commission (EAC) grant program to assist in securing election infrastructure.”
Pelosi emphasized that the federal designation of U.S. electoral systems as “critical infrastructure” is crucial to protecting elections. Some states objected to the designation in 2016 over concerns about federal interference in state-run elections.
“There are some on the other side who are trying to undermine that designation,” she said.
In 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. In January 2017, the intelligence community issued a report detailing Russia’s campaign influence operation. Pelosi predicted that Russia would try to interfere in the U.S. election process again.
“We cannot let the Russians laugh about and take joy in the success they had in the last election in disrupting the last election, as they go forward to do so again. Not only in our country, but in other countries,” she said.
“Their goal is to undermine democracy and by attacking the very central pillar of our democracy, our voting system, they have every intention of doing just that and the technology only gets more and more sophisticated. We know that. Why aren’t we doing something about it?” she added.