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On Capitol Hill, a Push for Election Security

The For the People Act would require states to replace outdated paperless voting machines and provide better oversight for private vendors.

February 14, 2019

Election security took center stage on Capitol Hill this Wednesday in a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee. The hearing featured testimony from election security experts and was part of ongoing deliberation over H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, a sweeping voting rights and anti-corruption bill introduced in January. 

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tx.) argued that “one of the strongest elements of democracy is the independent right of every American to cast their vote unimpeded, unsuppressed, and unoppressed.” Jackson Lee referenced the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election and asked the witnesses if U.S. election systems were “still in jeopardy of intrusion.” 

In concluding her questioning, Jackson Lee submitted for the record the 2017 Brennan Center report Securing Elections from Foreign Interference. The report focuses on securing voting machines and voter registration databases, two parts of the U.S. election system that are most vulnerable to foreign interference.

How H.R. 1 would tackle election security

H.R. 1, the House Democrats’ first major legislation of the 2019 session of Congress, contains a number of provisions to improve election security. These include a requirement for states to replace paperless voting machines with ones that create an auditable paper backup, grants to help states enhance election security, and security requirements for election system vendors (including an obligation for companies to report cybersecurity breaches to the federal government). If passed, the legislation would mark the first national-level overhaul of U.S. election infrastructure since the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

There is now widespread agreement on the need to replace paperless electronic voting machines, which are uniquely vulnerable to error or manipulation because they do not produce a paper record that voters can review and that election officials can use to check the electronic totals. That consensus includes the support of the U.S. Senate and House Intelligence Committees and a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. But 12 states still use paperless voting machines — down by only two states since 2016. 

“There has definitely been progress on election security since 2016,” said Lawrence Norden, co-author of the Securing Elections report and deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “But one core area where we aren’t seeing enough progress is the replacement of paperless touchscreen machines — and H.R. 1 is a good reminder that it’s an urgent issue.”

There are additional H.R. 1 provisions that echo the recommendations outlined in the Securing Elections report, including money for states to perform risk-limiting audits and  complete regular comprehensive threat assessments. The bill also identifies the need to create federal standards for electronic poll-books or electronic versions of polling place voter rolls.

Finally, H.R. 1 puts focus on the private vendors involved in the U.S. election process. These vendors sell and provide a variety of services that range from election websites, registration databases, and voting machines. “This is an area that is almost completely unregulated,” said Norden. “It’s important that H.R. 1 calls attention to the need for oversight.”

There’s work to do

A November 2018 poll found that nearly eight in 10 Americans are at least somewhat concerned about the potential hacking of the nation’s voting systems — and 45 percent of respondents said they were extremely or very concerned. With another national election around the corner, lawmakers have a lot of work ahead of them on election security issues — and a template for how to tackle them.

(Image: Sean Rayford/Getty)