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Analysis

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The For the People Act would require states to replace outdated paperless voting machines and provide better oversight for private vendors.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