COMPARED TO what Congress should be doing in the face of multiple foreign threats to the integrity of U.S. elections, the Secure Elections Act is just a first step. Yet the Senate is having trouble taking even this initial move. The fault lies with a shortsighted White House, which has poured cold water on the bill, and some state leaders, who complain about being required to make some basic changes.
The bipartisan bill, shepherded by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), appeared to be on its way to easy passage in October. But a committee session to consider the modest bill was suddenly and curiously canceled last week. Yahoo News reported that one cause was the White House, quoting a Trump administration spokeswoman who expressed opposition to “legislation with inappropriate mandates or that moves power or funding from the states to Washington for the planning and operation of elections.”
If anything, the bill’s “inappropriate mandates” are not strong enough. One of its most promising provisions would require states to conduct post-election audits to confirm the integrity of the count. Yet election security expert Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice pointed out in an email that “it’s a ‘soft’ mandate, in that it doesn’t require a manual review of paper, and it leaves it up to the chief state election official to interpret what it means.” He speculated that “many states would decide to satisfy the new mandate with something that’s less than scientifically solid.” Yet any audit requirement would represent progress over the status quo.
Beyond the audit provision, the bill would require companies that states hire to provide election services to tell officials when they detect a cybersecurity problem. It would call for establishing voluntary cybersecurity guidelines for states; similar guidelines for voting machines have helped push states to upgrade. It would also encourage voting machines that use paper, a crucial move away from the all-electronic systems that some states use. Some voting record must exist outside the realm of hackable software.
The bill might be more palatable to state elections officials wary of federal interference if it came with money for states to institute its mandates. But congressional Republicans have so far balked at the idea of ponying up any cash beyond the $380 million Congress already set aside for state election systems. That amount will not come close to meeting the states’ vast technological needs.
With only a few months left before the November elections, states should be scrambling. The Brennan Center recommends making backup paper copies of voter registration lists, stocking polling sites with lots of emergency paper ballots and establishing redundant websites on which voters can access polling information if the primary sites go down. In many states, more fundamental election security changes will have to wait.
It took Congress and the states far too long following the 2016 presidential vote to prioritize election security, and now there is only so much they can do before this year’s midterms. They will have to work harder to get the country ready for 2020 — and that might include convincing the White House that the effort is necessary.