Leaders of both parties on Tuesday made a high-profile push to keep hackers and online trolls from skewing American democracy, offering the first major set of bipartisan suggestions to bolster the digital defenses protecting the country’s electoral systems.
The recommendations — the first release from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s yearlong investigation into Russia's 2016 election meddling and whether the Kremlin colluded with the Trump campaign on its efforts — include establishing a voluntary state election security grant program but do not suggest a cost, a key sticking point for Democrats, who want Congress to allocate millions of dollars to help cash-strapped states upgrade outdated voting technology.
Still, the panel said Congress must “urgently pass legislation” to get grant money for states, giving a long-stagnant push for such a bill a significant endorsement from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
“We need to be more effective at deterring our adversaries,” Burr said at a Tuesday news conference. “The federal government should partner with the states to truly secure their systems.”
Tuesday’s findings do not include any judgment on whether President Donald Trump’s team coordinated with Moscow on its disinformation campaign, unlike the House’s parallel Russia probe, which Republicans recently shuttered over the objections of Democrats, proclaiming they had found no evidence of collusion.
Senate Intelligence Committee leaders said on Tuesday they are still looking into the subject of collusion and will issue those findings in the coming month or two.
In the meantime, however, the committee wanted to reveal its election security findings, given that the 2018 primary season is already underway — with Illinois voting on Tuesday — and the November midterm elections rapidly approaching.
“There’s still much more to do” to secure America’s elections, said Senate Intelligence ranking member Mark Warner (D-Va.).
“While our investigation is still ongoing, one conclusion is clear," said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican panel member: "The Russians were relentless in attempting to meddle in the 2016 elections,” and will continue trying to undermine Western democracies, a point intelligence leaders have made repeatedly in recent weeks on Capitol Hill.
The election security recommendations steer clear of specific mandates, instead largely emphasizing overarching approaches or priorities. Among them are that the United States should signal that foreign election interference is a “hostile act, and we will respond accordingly.”
Other suggestions dovetail with a laundry list of ideas cybersecurity experts have long been imploring the country to adopt. But these specialists said it's still important to have senior leaders in Congress trumpeting such ideas.
"Some things that are obvious need saying, and they need to be said by authoritative voices," said Jane Holl Lute, the former No. 2 at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration and currently president of security firm SICPA.
And state officials — often suspect of new government rules — expressed cautious optimism that the announcement might help them get the help many have been requesting.
"I’m hoping this is an indicator that it’s not just important, but urgent for Congress to act as well," Alex Padilla, California's Democratic secretary of state, told POLITICO.
The Intelligence panel's main recommendations include improving federal information sharing with state election officials, as well as moving toward voting machines that have a paper backup, something cybersecurity experts have been demanding for years. Using some of its strongest language, the panel urged states to “rapidly replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems.”
Voters in several competitive states cast ballots in 2016 on electronic machines that leave no paper trail, making it difficult — or potentially impossible — to catch digital fiddling with vote tallies. And overall, 43 states rely on at least some electronic machines that are more than 10 years old, according to the New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, which has been researching election technology.
But many state officials say they don’t have the money to upgrade these aging machines.
To address these budgetary challenges, the committee wants Congress to pass legislation establishing a “voluntary grant program for the states” to be used to hire tech staffers, update software, bring in outside digital security firms and implement new election auditing procedures.
Specifically, the committee urged states to adopt “statistically sound audits,” a reference to a push for sophisticated post-election reviews that cyber experts call necessary for ensuring hackers aren't meddling with vote tallies. Only a couple states — including Colorado and Rhode Island — have implemented these “risk-limiting” audits, which allow officials to double-check a sample of paper ballots against digital tallies to determine whether results were tabulated correctly.
“Clearly, we’ve got to get some standard in place that ensures every state” can certify their vote totals, Burr said.
Notably, one recommendation suggests a collaboration to develop voluntary cybersecurity guidelines with the Election Assistance Commission, an independent federal agency that some Republicans have pushed to eliminate entirely.
Separately, the panel encouraged DHS to expedite the voluntary cybersecurity services it offers states. While numerous states have long been tapping the department’s basic tools, such as weekly network scans, some officials say there has been a monthslong wait time for DHS’ more exhaustive, in-person digital defense assessments.
DHS has “made great strides” in reducing this delay, Burr said, but insisted the agency must do more, indicating that a coming omnibus budget bill might include extra DHS funds to help speed these efforts.
The mostly hands-off approach could reflect suspicion of federal help from a number of states, fearing that they stand to lose their traditional election administration turf. In fact, the very first recommendation from the Senate panel is that “States should remain firmly in the lead on running elections, and the Federal government should ensure they receive the necessary resources and information.”
The bipartisan recommendations stand in stark contrast to offerings from the House’s Russia probe.
Republicans recently unilaterally closed the intelligence panel's investigation, announcing not only that they had found no evidence of collusion, but also that the U.S. intelligence community was wrong in its firm conclusion that Russia deployed its online meddlers to help Trump’s candidacy.
The move outraged Democrats, who said investigators had left numerous stones unturned, including election security. In their own report, Democrats argued that the panel “has only scratched the surface” on figuring out how to better digitally defend the electoral system.
In the Senate, Intelligence panel lawmakers have been able to retain a bipartisan approach to their investigation, as shown by Tuesday’s news conference announcing their recommendations. The gathering included numerous lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
The full committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday to discuss its voting security offerings.
The hearing could help revive a stalled bipartisan election security bill that mirrors much of what the Intelligence panel called for on Tuesday.
The measure has the backing of several Intelligence committee members, including Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), as well as hawkish Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine.
A spokeswoman for Warner tweeted on Tuesday that the Virginia Democrat would also be joining as a sponsor of the bill.
Like the Intelligence Committee recommendations, Lankford’s legislation would emphasize that elections are states’ turf, propose improvements to cyber threat information sharing, establish a state grant program for voting security upgrades and create voluntary cybersecurity guidelines that states could get money to implement.
Earlier this month, Lankford proposed a scaled-back version of this bill as an amendment to a DHS policy bill. But he pulled it at the last moment after a handful of states signed a letter opposing the proposal, saying senators should wait to act until the Intelligence Committee finished its work.
Tuesday’s unveiling could help mollify those objections.
Until then, though, lawmakers and voting integrity advocates worry that the country remains ill-prepared to fend off a digital onslaught targeting the elections. When asked if U.S. elections are better protected than they were in 2016, Harris simply replied: “We’re working on that."