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U.S. Election Security: Potential Legislation Leverages NIST, NSF

A new bill proposed in the House would authorize the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct research on how to improve and best safeguard voting systems from hackers.

The Election Technology Research Act of 2019 (H.R. 4990) was passed unanimously by the The House Science, Space and Technology Committee earlier this month — with bipartisan sponsorship from Reps. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) — and has moved to the House floor. Voting machines used by dozens of states can be easily and repeatedly hacked, potentially corrupting millions of votes in the 2020 election, a recent report found, illuminating the danger of outdated voting infrastructure and the need for new thinking.

U.S. Election Security: Proposed NIST, NSF Roles

Specifically, H.R. 4990 will:

  • Authorize research activities at NIST on cybersecurity, privacy, auditing, and other important areas of research related to the security and integrity of elections.
  • Establish an Elections Systems Center of Excellence at NIST to foster collaborations between NIST, universities, state and local governments, and private stakeholders.
  • Authorize new research grants for elections systems research and education at NSF.
  • Direct NIST to carry out specific tasks supporting secure elections, including providing technical assistance to state and local election officials on implementation of cybersecurity and privacy standards.
  • Require a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to assess the impact of NIST’s activities.

The bill also amends the Help America Vote Act, initially passed in 2002, to update the definition of “voting systems” to include not just the voting machines but also electronic poll books and voter registration systems. It further directs the Election Assistance Commission to publish best practice guidelines for auditing, voter registration and other elements of securing voting systems.

“Election security is essential to our democracy and I am glad to see the Committee addressing it today in a bipartisan manner,” said Gonzales. “With new threats facing our electoral systems, it is imperative that we continue to update our election laws and improve our election security by passing bipartisan election security legislation.”

U.S. Election Security: Legislation Challenges

The bill joins a number of other election security legislation passed by the House that have stalled in the Senate over concerns that the measures would snip election control away from the states. A few months ago, the House passed the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act (SAFE) mandating the use of individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballots and post-election audits. The proposed legislation, one of two House-introduced bills to resist security problems that plagued the 2016 Presidential election, is unlikely to receive an up or down vote on the Senate floor.

At the same time as the House approved H.R. 4990, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said new legislation is coming to simplify jurisdiction over election security issues, The Hill reported. “There are four committees in Congress, in the House, that have part jurisdiction on elections,” Thompson reportedly said during Georgetown University’s State of Cyber conference. “We are going to do an election bill there shortly to try to manage some of that, and we are working out the differences, but the jurisdictional issues continue to confront us.”

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