Strange, but True: White House Blocks Bill to Protect U.S. Elections

Strange, but True: White House Blocks Bill to Protect U.S. Elections

A bill that would have significantly bolstered the nation’s defenses against electoral interference has been held up in the Senate at the behest of the White House, which opposed the proposed legislation, according to congressional sources.

The Secure Elections Act would have made significant changes to the way states protect their voting systems in three significant ways. It proposes to:

  • Give security clearances to the top election official in all 50 states so they can follow real-time threats to their voting systems
  • Establish a formal channel among the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), other government agencies, and states to share information on the security of each state’s election
  • Ensure a state conducts an audit after any federal election, including incentivizing efforts to purchase electronic voting machines that retain a paper record of each ballot

That last part is crucial, as it would help states keep an accurate vote count if cyberattackers tried to manipulate or interfere with a final, electronic-only report.

The White House, however, doesn’t like the bipartisan bill. The government, and mainly DHS, “has all the statutory authority it needs to assist state and local officials to improve the security of existing election infrastructure,” Lindsay Walters, a White House spokesperson, said.

The Secure Elections Act, introduced by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., in December 2017, had co-sponsorship from two of the Senate’s most prominent liberals, Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., as well as from conservative stalwart Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and consummate centrist Susan Collins, R-Me.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was set to conduct a markup of the bill on Wednesday morning in the Senate Rules Committee, which he chairs. The bill had widespread support, including from some of the committee’s Republican members, and was expected to come to a full Senate vote in October. But then the chairman’s mark, as the critical step is known, was canceled, and no explanation was given.

As it currently stands, the legislation would grant every state’s top election official security clearance to receive threat information. It would also formalize the practice of information-sharing between the federal government—in particular, the Department of Homeland Security—and states regarding threats to electoral infrastructure. A technical advisory board would establish best practices related to election cybersecurity. Perhaps most significantly, the law would mandate that every state conduct a statistically significant audit following a federal election. It would also incentivize the purchase of voting machines that leave a paper record of votes cast, as opposed to some all-electronic models that do not. This would signify a marked shift away from all-electronic voting, which was encouraged with the passage of the Help Americans Vote Act in 2002.

“Paper is not antiquated,” Lankford says. “It’s reliable.”

A paper record could prove effective against hackers if they tried to change the reporting of votes on the internet, as opposed to altering the votes themselves. Election officials needs to be able to say, “‘Nope, we can check this,’” as Lankford puts it. “Here’s the paper, here’s the machine, here’s our poll count.”