House Democrats’ Election-Security Plan Already Facing Stiff Pushback

With states still wary of Washington’s meddling and Senate Republicans reluctant to put down more money, Congress is unlikely to pass the new election-security rules in time for 2020.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats unveil a comprehensive elections and ethics-reform package that targets what they call a "culture of corruption in Washington" and aims to reduce the role of money in politics, on Jan. 4.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Jan. 9, 2019, 8 p.m.

It was meant to be one of the more bipartisan provisions in H.R. 1, the massive anti-corruption package unveiled last Friday by the ascendant House Democrats. But state officials and U.S. senators alike are already panning the new proposals to enhance election cybersecurity ahead of the 2020 vote.

“This bill seems to be a huge federal overreach,” said Paul Pate, Iowa’s Republican secretary of state and the incoming president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, in a statement to National Journal. “No matter how well-intentioned, the provisions of the bill give the authority of overseeing and conducting elections and voter registration to the federal government. States are better prepared than the federal government to determine what is right for their residents.”

“I will encourage Iowa’s federal delegation to soundly reject this attempt to federalize state election systems,” Pate later said.

A spokesman for the secretary of state clarified that Pate was addressing H.R. 1 in its entirety, and said his office continues to review the specific election security provisions in the bill. But Pate’s response illustrates some officials’ ongoing distrust of federal efforts to regulate elections, as well as the trouble House Democrats may face when trying to sell their election security provisions as part of a broader, more polarizing package.

Things don’t look much better in the Senate, where Sen. James Lankford—the Republican who, along with Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, spearheaded a failed bipartisan push for the Secure Elections Act last Congress—dismissed the effort by House Democrats to put an additional $1.7 billion between now and 2026 into upgrading state voting systems to include backup paper ballots.

Lankford pointed to the $380 million already paid out to the states for election security last year, saying he was unwilling to pony up more funds until he’s seen a full accounting of how that money was spent. “We’re supposed to get the final write-up on that, and how it was used and what they did with it, by the end of this year,” Lankford said.

The senator also said he “doubts” his Republican colleagues would under any circumstances support a $1.7 billion price tag for election-cybersecurity upgrades.

As perhaps the key Republican voice in the Senate on the issue, Lankford’s refusal to consider additional funding until the end of 2019 may prevent the passage of serious election-security legislation in time for it to have an impact on the 2020 presidential election—a vote most experts expect will be targeted by Russia and other nefarious actors.

“States have to make decisions in the next few months,” said Lawrence Norden, the deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “Particularly when it comes to election infrastructure and things like voting machines, there’s a lag time.”

It’s a concern echoed by Jim Condos, Vermont’s Democratic secretary of state and the current president of NASS. He ultimately refused to back last year’s push demanding that states purchase paper-backed voting machines and conduct risk-limiting audits, arguing that it was inappropriate to order states to take action without also giving them financial support. But he now supports the House Democrats’ plan to fund those security mandates, and he warns against any foot-dragging in either chamber.

“It needs to pass this year,” Condos said. “It needs to pass, really, in the next six months or so, if it’s going to have any impact on next year.”

Condos is well aware of the power state officials have to make or break election-security legislation in Congress. It was officials like himself who, with the help of the White House, sank the Secure Elections Act just moments before the bill was set to be marked up by the Senate Rules Committee in August. Those same state officials are set to meet in D.C. at the start of February, and congressional staff from both parties are expected to brief them on H.R. 1 and other election-cybersecurity provisions now percolating on Capitol Hill.

Condos says he hopes to convince Pate and other skeptical colleagues to back greater federal intervention into their election-security systems. But he worries that could be a heavy lift, particularly since the election-security debate has grown more partisan. The Vermont secretary of state expressed dismay at the House Democrats’ decision to attach the cybersecurity proposals to a very broad—and very liberal—piece of messaging legislation like H.R. 1.

“I’ll be honest; I think because of the way this bill was brought in there’s a lot of concern that it was a partisan bill,” Condos said. “And I think that’s too bad. Our elections process should not be a partisan football.”

Given the premium they’ve put on the anti-corruption message of H.R. 1, House Democrats may be hesitant to work for a separate compromise with the Senate on election cybersecurity.

“We want to pass the package as a package,” Rep. John Sarbanes, the chief architect of H.R. 1, told reporters on Friday. “Because frankly, we want to put pressures on anybody who resists this. If [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and his team on the other side want to stand between the American people and their democracy, be my guest.”

But even without the added factor of Democratic partisanship, Norden expects some state officials will continue to oppose any federal election-security mandates, with or without funding attached.

“Frankly, I don’t understand why,” Norden said. “For the vast majority of the states that have paperless systems, they’re going to replace them—if they get the money to do so—with systems that have paper. ... I do think that part of it is just reflexive.”

That opposition continues to frustrate lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly since they believe most state officials would eagerly take federal money for election security if it were offered without strings attached.

“It’s not reality to expect people to give you money without conditions with it,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, the new Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee who last year proposed the $1.7 billion for new voting machines now found in H.R. 1. “And our conditions are not saying that every state has to do it a certain way. It’s saying that a secure election system has to have certain built-in safeguards. ... There’s no cookie-cutter approach to doing it.”

Thompson also warned of the consequences should Congress fail to coalesce around election-security legislation in time for 2020.

“We know that the Russians messed with us in ’16; we know that they came back last year, did some things,” he said. “Everything we’ve heard from the people out here say they’ll come back. So rather than wait for something catastrophic to occur, I think we have to be proactive.”

This article has been updated with a clarification from Pate's spokesman that the secretary of state was addressing H.R. 1 in full, not just the election cybersecurity provisions.

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