Congress Scrambles to Shore Up Election Cybersecurity

Nearly $400 million will likely be allocated to the states, with the expectation the funds be used to create a paper trail officials can audit at the first signs of vote-tampering.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (right) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner at a hearing on election security Wednesday
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
March 21, 2018, 8 p.m.

After well over a year of arm-twisting and mutual suspicion, states are finally set to receive the funding they say is crucial to fortifying their election infrastructure against Russia and other determined aggressors in cyberspace.

Mark Warner, the ranking member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, confirmed to reporters Wednesday that state election officials can expect around $386 million to be sent their way as part of this week’s sprawling federal spending bill.

That number is significantly higher than the $300 million lump sum left unappropriated from the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which state officials have been pushing Congress to allow the Election Assistance Commission to pay out.

“We think the states will be very pleased with a number that might even be a little bit higher than that,” Warner said. “This is actually an example of the system working. There had been, I think, consensus between [the Homeland Security Department], between the state heads of election, that a number closer to $386 [million] was probably appropriate.”

Yet it remains to be seen whether the money will arrive quickly enough to close the still-substantial gap between congressional expectation and state action on election cybersecurity. Jim Condos, Vermont’s secretary of state and the incoming president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, worries that time may be running out.

“We need to have the resources now,” Condos told National Journal following a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. “We can’t wait until August or September, because the 2018 election will be upon us before long.”

Over the course of Wednesday’s hearing, representatives from Homeland Security and the states both celebrated the increased collaboration between federal and local officials when it came to election cybersecurity. It was a far cry from the mistrust that marred interactions between the two sides last year, when the federal government fretted over the states’ blasé attitude while state officials decried what they saw as federal overreach.

But significant disparities still persist. During Wednesday’s hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told lawmakers that only 33 states have received an election-cybersecurity certification by the EAC. While most states that have fallen short are apparently making a good-faith effort to close that gap, Nielsen added that two unidentified states “are not working with us right now as much as we want.”

The central issue revolves around the absence of electronic-voting machines that provide paper backups of each vote taken, along with machines capable of quickly and accurately recounting vast numbers of those backups. States without those systems would struggle to audit election results in the case of a perceived discrepancy, and election-security experts say the technology is crucial to ensuring that vote totals aren’t altered by hackers.

Auditable voting systems were one of several recommendations released Tuesday as part of a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report on election cybersecurity.

An October report from the National Conference of State Legislatures showed that 16 states did not provide any statutory guidance for election audits, while another three had the option to conduct audits only in certain circumstances. And while the remaining states are required to implement some kind of postelection audit, many are unable to effectively do so until they fully upgrade their outdated machines.

Because the Constitution gives states the sole power to run elections, there’s little that Congress or the executive agencies can do to compel state action on election auditing. But Warner said a significant portion of the funds being allocated in the omnibus spending bill will go to “making sure that there are auditable systems” in place.

Condos said he believes that most state officials are now aware of the need for election systems that can be reviewed by auditors after a vote takes place. “It’s really a matter of resources,” he said. “I mean, these things don’t happen overnight. And the vote tabulators can be expensive.”

The expected $386 million in federal funds should speed the deployment of those systems for state election boards that are still lagging. But Eric Rosenbach, the director of the Defending Digital Democracy Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, said money alone won’t solve the issue.

“This is such a new problem that, in a lot of ways, states have trouble working out the bureaucracy even within their states,” Rosenbach said after Wednesday’s hearing. “And any interaction with the federal government makes it even more complex and more difficult to get those things done.”

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