WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee is introducing legislation to protect local elections infrastructure from cyber attacks following Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The 47-page House bill, meant to prod information sharing between the federal government and local elections agencies, is sponsored by Republican Reps. Tom Rooney and Trey Gowdy, and Democrats Jim Himes and Terri Sewell. It’s a companion to a Senate bill from Sens. James Lankford, D-Okla., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
“Although the Russian government didn’t change the outcome of the 2016 election, they certainly interfered with the intention of sowing discord and undermining Americans’ faith in our democratic process,” Rooney, R-Fla., said in a statement Friday. “There’s no doubt in my mind they will continue to meddle in our elections this year and in the future.”
During the 2016 election, the Department of Homeland Security contacted election officials in 21 states nearly a year after Russians tried to hack voter registration files or public election sites. In a handful of states, including Illinois, attackers penetrated computer systems, but officials said at the time there was no evidence voting machines had been hacked.
The bill comes amid growing alarm in Washington over Russia’s attempts to interfere in 2018 midterm elections. Days earlier, Florida Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson, in a hotly contested race for reelection, said Russian operatives penetrated some of his state’s election systems. In June, Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is also in a competitive race, confirmed that Russians unsuccessfully attempted to hack her Senate computer network.
“I am very concerned that you could have a hack that finally went through,” Klobuchar said Aug. 5 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The House bill, like the Senate bill, is meant to boost information sharing between the federal government and local and state governments; it directs the Department of Homeland Security to ensure state election officials are appropriately cleared to receive vital classified information. The House bill also lets states and local jurisdictions apply for grants to replace outdated voting machines and modernize their elections systems.
The House bill also orders the federal government to “promptly” share information about cyber incidents, threats or vulnerabilities with local elections agencies — and identify ways for them to protect themselves. It would establish an advisory panel to develop cybersecurity guidelines, identify risks, make policy recommendations and administer the grants program.
“Free and fair elections are the bedrock of our democracy,” Himes, D-Conn., said in a statement. “Russian actors targeted our elections infrastructure during the 2016 elections and will continue these attacks on our elections. We must act now to protect our election systems from attacks by foreign actors who seek to erode our democracy and undermine the foundations of our government’s legitimacy. This bipartisan legislation will ensure that the first line of defense – those on the frontlines of administering elections – have the information, modern equipment, financial resources and federal support needed to protect our elections.”
The Senate version of the bill is co-sponsored by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and ranking member Mark Warner, D-Va., and Senate Armed Services Cybersecurity Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rounds, D-S.D., and ranking member Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Senate Democrats have been jousting with the Trump administration on the issue. Earlier this month, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., led a press conference to say national security advisor John Bolton is not addressing their concerns.
Bolton, in an Aug. 2 letter touted the “vast, government-wide effort” that includes DHS cybersecurity training for state officials and stiff sanctions against Russia.
But Democrats said Bolton’s letter did not address their demands that the administration fully implement Russia sanctions, that the intelligence community share threat information with local officials and that federal government commit to speedily informing and assisting state and local officials under threat.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.