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U.S. House Passes Election Security Bill, Senate Approval Unlikely

With the 2020 U.S. presidential election but 17 months away, yet another voting security bill awaits a Senate vote. The House of Representatives has just passed the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act (SAFE Act) to again try to address foreign meddling into U.S. elections.

On its face, the bill’s measures — to mandate a paper trail for ballots, provide accessibility and privacy for disabled voters, and avoid foreign hacking — would seem uncontroversial enough to garner bipartisan support. But in today’s Congressional environment that’s nearly an insurmountable ask. One Republican voted for the measure. No Democrats voted against it. If a similar measure was introduced by the right side of the aisle it surely would have been met with mirrored resistance.

The SAFE bill requires voting systems to:

  • Use individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballots.
  • Make a voter’s marked ballot available for inspection and verification by the voter before the vote is cast.
  • Ensure that individuals with disabilities are given an equivalent opportunity to vote, including privacy and independence, to produce a voter-verified paper ballot.
  • Voting systems must be manufactured in the U.S.

The SAFE Act also allocates money to support election infrastructure, including voting system security improvement grants. Specific funding includes:

  • $600 million for the Election Assistance Commission, allocated to help states enhance their security ahead of the 2020 elections.
  • $175 million biannually to maintain election infrastructure.
  • $5 million for a grant program administered by the National Science Foundation to research accessible paper ballot verification methods to address the needs of voters with disabilities and voters who speak English as their second language.

Republicans and Democrats: Searching for Common Election Security Ground

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that tighter election security is needed. But with roughly 200 days until the New Hampshire primary for the 2020 presidential election, the two sides have yet to carve out common ground on new legislation and, at the country’s peril, likely won’t find a happy medium. “This bill closes dangerous gaps in our election systems and brings our security into the 21st century,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in support of the bill.

Republicans fear federal overreach into state and local control of elections. “Democrats’ bill focuses on forcing states to restructure their election systems through federal mandates and ignores states’ rights to choose the election system that best fits their unique needs,” Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) said. “I want to highlight the fact that there’s no evidence of voting machines being hacked in 2016, 2018 or ever,” Davis said. “So why are we forcing states to get rid of what they deem the safe technology? We should work together to safeguard technology, not abandon it.”

(Note: A June 2017 Congressional hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 elections identified 21 attempts by Russian operatives to penetrate state election-related networks.)

Republicans and Democrats: Continued Challenges

The bill now joins a growing pile of election security legislation awaiting a vote in the Senate. Most, if not all the House approved bills don’t stand a chance of passing the Senate. A number won’t be brought up for a vote or will be blocked. For example, last week, a floor vote on the Election Security Act, which would require paper ballots and provide $1 billion in election security grants to states, was blocked. A week earlier, a vote to pass legislation requiring campaigns to report contacts with foreign nationals seeking to interfere in elections was also blocked.

If you want to read a comprehensive examination of the country’s election security and how to improve it, check out this white paper published last month by Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center.

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