The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Deterring our adversaries’: Senators call for immediate steps to protect elections

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) detailed the shortcomings of election infrastructure in the 2016 election. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Senate Intelligence Committee members said Tuesday that the federal government and states should take immediate steps to update antiquated voting machines; improve information-sharing and cybersecurity measures surrounding threats to systems; and make it clear that the United States will respond to attacks on election infrastructure as hostile acts to prevent Russia and other adversaries from trying to interfere with future elections.

The results, which panel members unveiled Tuesday, are the first product of a year-long probe that the committee has been conducting into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, including questions of whether President Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russian officials to bolster his chances to be elected.

The panel is also expected to produce three additional reports endorsing the intelligence community’s findings on why and how Russia interfered in that contest, on the level of involvement of the social media companies whose platforms were exploited to aid Russian efforts, and finally on whether the panel found evidence of collusion between Trump and his associates and the Kremlin.

During a news conference with the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Russians scanned election systems in at least 21 states. (Video: Reuters)

Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said that the panel would try to roll out subsequent reports every month.

“It is clear the Russian government was looking for the vulnerabilities in our election system and highlighted some of the key gaps,” Burr said during a Tuesday news conference to announce the panel’s recommendations on election security. “We need to be more effective at deterring our adversaries.”

The recommendations come in advance of a hearing planned for Wednesday, in which panel members intend to grill government officials, including the current and former heads of the Department of Homeland Security, on the state of election security.

Panel members from both parties expressed frustration that federal authorities, particularly those at DHS, “were not more on their game in advance of the 2016 elections,” said panel Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), complaining that department employees should have given states faster and clearer warnings about the Russian threat when they detected it. “I think DHS has picked up its game” in the last several months, Warner said.

Trump administration hits Russian spies, trolls with sanctions over U.S. election interference, cyberattacks

The recommendations would lead to comprehensive change, if they’re followed: Senators noted that 40 states are operating with election equipment that is more than a decade old, and several of those systems are running software too old to be updated with modern protections. Fourteen states also use election voting machines that provide no paper trail — making it all but impossible to audit results.

“Russia cannot hack a piece of paper like they can a computer system connected to the Internet,” said Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), one of a quartet of panel members tasked to lead the report on recommendations.

The changes would also be expensive. In 2002, when the federal government passed legislation to modernize election systems in the wake of the controversial 2000 election, Congress budgeted more than $3 billion to help states. Presently, lawmakers are looking at approving about $380 million in grants for states to improve their election security as part of a broader budget bill Congress must pass by Friday. While some lawmakers have cheered the money in the bill as a triumph, some Democrats have complained that it is simply not enough.

But senators on the committee are not in clear agreement about whether the federal government should be getting more involved.

“Elections are state responsibilities . . . quite frankly, it’s the people of those states going to their state leaders and saying, ‘We want our election to be secured,’ ” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “There’s not enough funding that we could provide, nor should provide, to every county, every state in America to be able to oversee all their election equipment.”

But others, such as Harris, said that lawmakers “have to provide this kind of support to states, many of them who cannot afford to update their equipment.” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) added that while he concluded that states had to come up with funds to improve their election security, he hoped that the $380 million contribution from the federal government is “a beginning, not an end.”

Panel leaders were adamant that states, despite their variegated election systems, are the best administrators of elections. But they added that the federal government must do a better job making sure that states are adequately informed about potential threats — not just from Russia — and are equipped to respond to any suspected breaches of security.

“We very much support state control of the election process. We think there are ways that the federal government can support those states, but clearly we’ve got to get some standards in place,” Burr said. “We realize all of this security costs money, and we want to make sure the federal government not only says we’re a partner but we are a partner.”

Read more at PowerPost