The Free Internet Project

Project Safeguarding Elections

U.S. Federal Election Commission's Proposed Rule to Require Campaign Reporting of Receipt of "Valuable Information" and "Compromising Information"

In response to findings that President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign received election assistance from foreign entities, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has proposed new rules to limit foreign election contributions.  [More from NPR] . Earlier this year, two entities—Sai, Fiat Fiendum, Inc. and Make Your Laws PAC, Inc.—petitioned the FEC to amend the definition of “valuable information” under 11 CFR part 100. 

Specifically, the proposed changes would narrow the commission’s legal definition of a contribution by defining “valuable information” as information that:

  1. Is not freely available to the public;
  2. Is provided to a person regulated by the Federal Elections Campaign Act . . . at a cost less than the market rate or by a person not hired by the recipient to generate such information;
  3. Would cost a non-trivial amount for the recipient to obtain at their own expense; and
  4. Is information that would likely have the effect of influencing any election for federal office or that parties or candidate committees have traditionally expended money to obtain.

If accepted, the following definition will be codified at 11 CFR 100.57.

The proposed regulation outlines two types of “valuable information”: “foreign information” and “compromising information.”

  • Foreign information” would include any information that comes from a source that is prohibited from making contributions under the Federal Elections Campaign Act.
  • Compromising information” would include information that could be used to blackmail or otherwise compromise any candidate for Federal office (including indirect coercion, such as of a candidate’s family), regardless of the source.

If any campaign official was offered or received either of types of information, the regulation mandates that they report this contact to the FEC within three days. Upon learning of a campaign receiving such information, the regulation requires the FEC to initiate investigations, provide a report to the FBI, and, in the case of “compromising information,” provide a report to every reasonably identifiable person against whom such information could be used. Once the FEC has learned of this information, the regulation requires the agency to provide a report to any other law enforcement entity with likely jurisdiction over the matter. Fourteen days later, the FEC must also publish a report on the matter.

Ellen L. Weintraub, the chair of the FEC, signed a notice about the potential new restrictions, further emphasizing the importance of curbing foreign interference in elections. Previously, on June 13, 2019, Weintraub published a statement regarding illegal contributions from foreign governments. “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” she reiterated. “Any political campaign that receives an offer of a prohibited donation from a foreign source should report that offer to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Currently, the FEC is seeking public comment on this proposed rule. This comment period ends on September 30, 2019. After this phase, the rule will be voted on by the FEC commissioners. In accordance with FEC agency policy, four votes are needed for any official action to proceed. Considering the agency currently has four confirmed commissioners out of six possible, this rule would need a unanimous vote in order to become law.

This administrative action echoes similar efforts in the House and Senate to pass increased election security protections in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Federal Judge Orders Georgia Election Officials to Upgrade Voting System Before 2020

On Thursday, August 15th, Federal District Court Judge Amy Totenberg ordered the state of Georgia to upgrade its election systems before the state holds its presidential primary election in March of 2020. The 151-page ruling describes Georgia’s election system as “antiquated, seriously flawed, and vulnerable to failure, breach, contamination, and attack.” Although she has previously ordered Georgia to upgrade its election systems, Thursday’s order marks the first time Judge Totenberg has set a specific deadline that Georgia officials must meet.

Georgia is one of a handful of states that relies exclusively on electronic voting systems that do not provide a paper record. Election security experts have roundly criticized such systems, noting that they are vulnerable to hackers and susceptible to logistical problems. Indeed, election security experts have identified a number of significant security breaches that occurred during the 2018 election.

Due to these concerns and previous orders from Judge Totenberg, Georgia had announced plans to upgrade its voting systems prior to Thursday’s ruling. In July, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger publicly announced that the state would purchase new electronic voting machines from Dominion Voting Systems. The machines will print out a paper ballot and a QR code that  both voters and election officials can use to verify vote tallies. The Associated Press notes that while Judge Totenberg has praised the new machines as “an essential step forward out of the quagmire, even if just to terminate use of antiquated voting  system,” plaintiffs remain skeptical of the new machines, specifically questioning the extent to which voters will be allowed to verify their selections rather than relying on a printed QR code. Because of these concerns, plaintiffs have publicly announced their intention to bring separate litigation over the newly proposed machines.

Judge Totenberg’s ruling was prompted by a motion from plaintiff voters and election security advocates asking the court to force Georgia officials to use paper ballots during upcoming 2019 municipal elections. Citing logistical concerns, Judge Totenberg held that the state would not have enough time to implement a paper ballot system in time. However, she notes that use of the current system “past this 2019 cycle of elections is indefensible given the operational and constitutional issues at stake.”

The ultimate effect of Thursday’s ruling is to prevent Georgia from reverting to current election systems if newly proposed voting machines are not rolled out in time for 2020 elections. As a result, Georgia will have to resort to a paper balloting system in 2020 if new systems are not in place. In preparation for this contingency,  Judge Totenberg’s order requires the Secretary of State to “address errors and discrepancies in the voter registration database” and test the use of a paper balloting system in a handful of jurisdictions during the state’s upcoming municipal elections.

Summary of Senate Intelligence Committee Report: “Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure”

On July 25, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence published Volume I of a report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference.  The report stems from the committee’s bipartisan investigation into a wide range of Russian activities relating to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Volume I reaffirmed the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA)  that  Russian intelligence accessed elements of multiple state or local electoral boards prior to the 2016 presidential election. According to the Report, DHS concluded that the Russian government likely researched the electoral system in place in all 50 states. In fact, by September 2017, DHS concluded that 21 states were explicitly targeted by Russian government cyber actors.

The Committee determined that “scanning” of election-related state infrastructure was the most widespread activity conducted by the Russian government prior to the election. Scanning is a form of reconnaissance where an adversary searches for weaknesses, access points, and vulnerabilities. Dr. Samuel Liles, Acting Director of Cyber Division for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, characterized these activities as “analogous to somebody walking down the street and looking to see if you are home. A small number of systems were unsuccessfully exploited, as though somebody had rattled the doorknob but was unable to get in . . . [however] a small number of the networks were successfully exploited. They made it through the door."

It should be noted that the Report provides no evidence that votes were changed, vote tallying systems were manipulated, or that any voter registration data was altered or deleted during the 2016 election cycle. Despite this, there is reason to believe that Russia will continue to escalate its interference in future elections. When testifying before the Committee, Michael Daniel, former Assistant and Cybersecurity Coordinator for President Obama, warned that mapping is done “so that [Russia] could actually understand the network [and] establish a presence so [they] could come back later and actually execute an operation.” Moreover, in an addendum providing the additional views of Senators Harris (D-CA), Bennet (D-CO), and Heinrich (D-NM), the Report states that “Russian operatives undoubtedly gained familiarity with our election systems and voter registration infrastructure—valuable intelligence that it may seek to exploit in the future.”

At the end of the Report, the Committee provided a comprehensive list of recommendations aimed at preventing Russia from interfering in future elections.

1.  Reinforce States' Primacy in Running Elections

The Committee recommends reinforcing the role of each state in administering elections while the federal government should ensure they receive the necessary resources and information. This recommendation received pushback from Senator Wyden (D-OR) who calls for mandatory, nation-wide cybersecurity requirements. Wyden argues that Congress's constitutional role in regulating federal elections is well-established and that the Russian attacks are too complex and too serious to be left solely to state and local officials. Wyden went so far as to say that “[w]e would not ask a local sheriff to go to war against the missiles, planes and tanks of the Russian Army. We shouldn't ask a county election IT employee to fight a war against the full capabilities and vast resources of Russia's cyber army.”

2.  Create Effective Deterrence

The Committee recommends that the U.S. establish an international cyber doctrine to limit certain cyber activity. This doctrine would be similar to the existing international norms and treaties about the use of technologies and weapons systems. The government should treat a violation of this doctrine would be viewed as a hostile act and will be responded to appropriately. The Committee made it clear that the U.S. “should not limit its response to cyber activity; rather, it should create a menu of potential responses that will send a clear message and create significant costs for the perpetrator.”

3.  Improve Information Gathering and Sharing on Threats

The Committee recommends that the federal government, state governments, and local governments should establish clear channels of communication between one another. While this may seem rather rudimentary on its face, one of the key components of information sharing about elections is security clearances for appropriate officials at the state and local level. Since the 2016 election, DHS has compiled a list of officials to contact in every state if there is a threat. In addition, DHS is seeking to obtain security clearances for up to three election officials per state. Lastly, federal officials are working to declassify information in order to provide the greatest possible warning to state and local officials without compromising our own national intelligence.

4.  Secure Election-Related Cyber Systems

Despite the expense, the Committee recommends that cybersecurity needs to become a higher priority for election-related infrastructure. To do this, election officials should work with DHS to evaluate the security of their election systems, voter registration systems, state records, and other pre-election activities. The Report stated that in 2016, “cybersecurity for electoral infrastructure at the state and local level was sorely lacking.” The Committee additionally recommends that DHS creates an advisory panel to give expert-level advice on how states and localities run elections. Using this advice, DHS should develop procedures and processes to evaluate and routinely provide guidance on relevant vulnerabilities associated with voting systems.

5.  Take Steps to Secure the Vote Itself

The Committee recommends that states act with urgency to replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems. At a minimum, any machine purchased going forward should have a voter-verified paper trail and remove (or render inert) any wireless networking capability. This is because paper ballots and optical scanners are the least vulnerable to cyber-attack. However, in order for paper ballots to be a legitimate means of tallying votes, there must be a secure chain of custody for those ballots. For this reason, the Committee recommends that states reexamine their safeguards against insertion of fraudulent paper ballots at the local level. Lastly, the Committee recommended that vendors of election equipment be briefed about the vulnerabilities in both the machines and the supply chains for the components of their machines.

6.  Assistance for the States

Finally, the Committee outlined its assessment of how the federal government can assist state and local governments in ensuring free and fair elections. State officials told the Committee the main obstacle to improving cybersecurity and purchasing more secure voting machines is cost. In March 2018, Congress appropriated $280 million in grants aimed at improving election security. Among other things, these funds will go toward replacing voting machines, hiring additional IT staff, updating software, and contracting with vendors to provide cybersecurity services. The Committee recommends that the Election Assistance Commission—the entity responsible for administering the grants—regularly report to Congress on how the states are using those funds, whether more funds are needed, and whether states have both replaced outdated voting equipment and improved cybersecurity.

Above all, this Report serves as a reminder that since 2014, Russia has been exploiting weaknesses in the American electoral system in order to sow discord and distrust among the American public. As former Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, told the Committee, the Russians “might not be effective the first time or the fifth time, but they are going to keep at it until they can come back and do it in an effective way." The committee plans to release several more installments of its report in the fall, focusing on the "Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) of Russian interference, the Obama Administration’s response to Russian interference, the role of social media disinformation campaigns, and remaining counterintelligence questions."

Netflix documentary The Great Hack chronicles how Cambridge Analytica exploited 87 million Facebook users' profiles to help Trump campaign

The Netflix documentary "The Great Hack" was just released. It chronicles how Cambridge Analytica, the now defunct UK firm, exploited the profile information of 87 million Facebook users it obtained via people's answers to a third party's questionnaire on Facebook--all without the users' knowledge or express consent. Armed with profile information or what it called 5,000 data points, Cambridge Analytica helped the Trump campaign target people they identified as "persuadables" in the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida, broken down by precinct. According to former employee Brittany Kaiser (who became a whistleblower), Cambridge Analytica then created personalized content to trigger those individuals to vote Trump: "We bombarded them through blogs, websites, articles, videos, ads, every platform you can imagine. Until they saw the world the way we wanted them to."

The documentary raises alarming questions about what amounts to digital information warfare conducted by a private firm using big data (scraped from Facebook profiles without proper authorization), personal profiling, and psychographic messaging, to influence national elections.  Although Cambridge Analytica went bankrupt, what's to stop other firms from doing the same?  Should laws be enacted to regulate what such data firms can do (such as how they can use personal information)?  What responsibilities do Facebook, YouTube, Google, Twitter, and other tech companies have in protecting personal information and in preventing such data firms and other entities from targeting their users with fake news and psychographic messaging intended to influence their vote?  

Time to Revisit Electronic Paperless Voting: State election systems lacking paper ballots are most vulnerable to hacking

Sample direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machine

Following the infamous hanging-chad fiasco in Florida during the 2000 U.S. presidential election, the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 aimed to modernize election systems in the United States, in part by encouraging states to transition from paper ballots to electronic voting systems. That 2000 reform, however, may have led to the unintended consequence of making U.S. elections more vulnerable to hacking. Amid reports of cyberattacks against voting systems in Florida, Georgia, and other states in the recent 2018 election, officials are questioning the efficacy of machine-based or electronic voting that lacks a paper trail. Many experts have called for a return to paper ballots or at least paper-records that can be used to audit machine-voting tallies.  As election security expert and Georgetown Law Center Professor Matt Blaze said, "'It's ironic that the famous picture of an election official examining a paper ballot during the Florida recount' was used to illustrate the primitivism of punch-card voting machines, but now is used to demonstrate the robustness of paper ballots." 

Paperless voting systems continue to be popular, however.  During the 2018 election cycle, most states relied on Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting systems, which store votes directly into a computer’s memory. The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that DRE systems can be equipped to provide a “voter-verifiable paper audit trail” (VVPAT) that serves two functions. First, VVPAT capabilities allow voters to verify that their ballots are recorded correctly. Second, VVPAT systems provide a paper trail for election officials should an audit become necessary. Nonetheless, ABC reported that 5 states (Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, New Jersey, and Delaware) used versions of Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) systems that leave no paper record of individual votes. Additionally, ABC notes that 8 states, including Pennsylvania, use DRE systems without a paper trail in at least one, but not all, counties.

Experts are increasingly critical of paperless DRE systems. A 2018 report "Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy" by the National Academy of Science calls for such systems to be “removed from service as soon as possible.” The Brennan Center argues that $380 million in federal funding recently authorized for election modernization is nowhere near enough to address the potential scope of interference in the 2020 election. Specifically, experts warn that paperless DRE systems tend to be older systems, most vulnerable to hacking. A New Yorker piece illustrates the grave risk, recounting a 2018 hacking conference in which hackers were able to infiltrate each of 24 voting machines on display, “some within minutes." Nonetheless, some state officials insist that paperless DRE systems are safe. For example, Delaware Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove told ABC news that DRE machines are not connected to the internet and are not connected to other machines. Thus, hackers would have to penetrate each individual machine to change vote tallies.

State responses have been mixed. The Brennan Center surveyed election officials in jurisdictions that use paperless DRE systems and received a wide variety of responses. Six states have taken direct action to replace all paperless machines with DRE systems equipped with VVPAT systems. These include the 5 states entirely reliant on paperless DRE systems and Pennsylvania. Other jurisdictions have taken a more measured response. Kentucky election officials, for example, have called for the replacement of paperless DRE systems but have yet to secure the funding to do so. Kansas has prohibited counties from purchasing new paperless DRE systems, but has not banned the use of existing paperless machines. Still other jurisdictions have taken no apparent action to replace paperless machines, including Indiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. In fact, one municipal election official in Texas reported to the Brennan Center that he hoped to replace existing paperless machines with a new set of paperless machines.

Jurisdictions that are taking action to replace paperless DRE systems are turning to a number of different alternatives. The Brennan Center report estimates that 55% of counties that intend to replace paperless DRE systems hope to purchase optical scanning machines, which rely on computers to scan and tally paper ballots. While optical scanning systems are still vulnerable to hacking of final tallies, they allow officials to retain paper ballots for auditing purposes. An additional 13% of counties intend to purchase DRE systems that are equipped with VVPAT technology, allowing officials to collect a paper trail of each individual vote. 6% of counties report plans to purchase ballot marking devices, which require voters to input their choices on a computer that in turn marks a paper ballot rather than storing votes to internal memory. The remaining 26% of counties have not specified an alternative voting system they intend to purchase.

The decentralized nature of American elections is often touted as an asset. Because elections are typically administered at the county level, hackers have to effectively infiltrate thousands of individual election systems rather than one centralized system. Given both the vulnerability of dated DRE systems and the demonstrated commitment of foreign actors to influence American elections, many believe that a federal mandate to collect paper records of individual votes could help strengthen the American electoral system.

New study by Alto Data Analytics casts doubt on effectiveness of fact checking to combat published fake news

As “fake news” continues to plague digital socio-political space, a new form of investigative reporter has risen to combat this disinformation: the fact-checker. Generally, fact-checkers are defined as journalists working to verify digital content by performing additional research on the content’s claim. Whenever a fact-checker uncovers a falsity masquerading as fact (aka fake news), they rebut this deceptive representation through articles, blog posts, and other explanatory comments that illustrate how the statement misleads the public. [More from Reuters] As of 2019, the number of fact-checking outlets across the globe has grown to 188 across 60 countries, according to the Reporters Lab.  

But recent research reveals that this upsurge in fact-checkers may not have that great an impact on defeating digital disinformation. From December 2018 to the European Parliamentary elections in May 2019, big-data firm Alto Data Analytics collected socio-political debate data from across a variety of digital media platforms. This survey served as one of the first studies assessing the success of fact-checking efforts.  Alto’s study examined five European countries: France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain. Focusing on verified fact-checkers in each of these countries, Alto’s Alto Analyzer cloud-based software tracked how users interacted with these trustworthy entities in digital space. Basing their experiment exclusively on Twitter interactions, the Analyzer platform recorded how users interacted with the fact-checkers’ tweets through re-tweets, replies, and mentions. After noting this information, the data-scientists calculated the fact-checkers’ effectiveness in reaching communities most affected by disinformation.

Despite its limitation to 5 select countries, the study yielded discouraging results. In total, the fact-checking outlets in these countries only amounted to between 0.1% and 0.3% of total number of Twitter activity during the period.  Across the five countries in the study, fact-checkers penetrated least successfully in Germany, followed closely by Italy. Conversely, fact-checkers experienced the greatest distributive effect in France. Fact-checkers’ digital presence tended to reach only a few online communities.  The study found that “fact-checkers . . . [were] unable to significantly penetrate the communities which tend to be exposed most frequently to disinformation content.”  In other words, fact-checking efforts reached few individuals, and the ones they did reach were other fact-checkers.  Alto Data notes, however, that their analysis “doesn’t show that the fact-checkers are not effective in the broader socio-political conversation.” But “the reach of fact-checkers is limited, often to those digital communities which are not targets for or are propagating disinformation.”  [Alto Data study]

Alto proposed ideas for future research models on this topic: expanding the study beyond one social media site; conducting research to find effectual discrepancies between various types of digital content—memes, videos, picture, and articles; taking search engine comparisons into account; and providing causal explanations for penetration differences between countries.

Research studies in the United States have also produced results doubting the effectiveness of fact-checkers. A Tulane University study discovered that citizens were more likely to alter their views from reading ideologically consistent media outlets than neutral fact-checking entities. Some studies even suggest that encounters with corrective fact-checking pieces have undesired psychological effects on content consumers, hardening individuals’ partisan positions and perceptions instead of dispelling them. 

These studies suggest that it's incredibly difficult to "unring the bell" of fake news, so to speak.  That is why the proactive efforts of social media companies and online sites to minimize the spread of blatantly fake news related to elections may be the only hope of minimizing its deleterious effects on voters.  

Summary of proposed Protecting American Votes and Elections Act of 2019 (PAVE Act) and Bots Research Act

 

Protecting American Votes and Elections Act of 2019 (PAVE Act)

Washington, D.C. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and 14 Senate co-sponsors introduced the PAVE Act requiring paper ballots and statistically rigorous “risk-limiting” audits for all federal elections.  In introducing the bill, Wyden said, “The PAVE Act scraps insecure voting machines that are juicy targets for hackers and replaces them with reliable, secure hand-marked paper ballots. It gives states the funding they need to defend their election systems and puts the Department of Homeland Security in charge of setting strong security standards for every federal election.” This bill updates aging election infrastructure.” Senator Gillibrand “Congress has a responsibility to secure the integrity of our elections, and I am proud to join with Senator Wyden to introduce this bill that strengthens our country’s election infrastructure.” 

The press release described the key provisions of the PAVE Act: 

  • "The new PAVE Act bans internet, WiFi and cellular connections for voting machines, and gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to set, for the first time, minimum cybersecurity standards for voting machines, voter registration databases, electronic poll books used to 'check in' voters at polling places and election night reporting websites."
  • "The bill also provides state and local governments with $500 million dollars to buy new, secure ballot scanning machines, and $250 million to buy new ballot marking devices to be used by voters with disabilities. It also permits the federal government to reimburse states the cost of conducting post-elections audits, as well as the cost of designing and printing ballots."

Bots Research Act (H.R. 2860)

On May 22, 2019, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) announced the Bots Research Act (H.R. 2860).  According to the press release, this bill would "establish a task force of experts at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to determine the impact of automated social media accounts" on elections and public disclosure and to figure out "how to most effectively combat any use of automated accounts that negatively effects social media, public discourse, and elections while continuing to promote the protection of the First Amendment on the internet."  DeSaulnier said, “We now know that bot accounts were actively used by foreign agents as part of what the Mueller Report characterized as ‘sweeping and systematic’ interference in the 2016 presidential election. The accounts spread false information and manipulate public opinion and threaten free elections and the democratic process."

Review of EU's Rapid Alert System to protect elections from disinformation and interference: did it work?

 

The New York Times has a front page article critiquing the EU's new Rapid Alert System (RAS), which was established to identify disinformation related to elections and to issue a rapid alert, warning voters in the EU.  Any EU member country can notify the EU office of possible election disinformation.  The Rapid Alert System was set up as a part of the EU's Action Plan against disinformation, which followed on the heels of the East Stratcom Task Force, which is tasked with countering Russian disinformation. The NYT article reports that some in Brussels, where the EU's disinformation analysts are stationed, jokingly describe the Rapid Alert System as follows: "It's not rapid. There are no alerts. And there's no system."  The NYT article includes one incident in which EU officials identified suspicious tweets about an "Austrian political scandal," which may have been from Russian trolls, but the EU officials--for whatever reason--did not issue an alert.  In fact, the office never issued any alerts during the last election season, although officials claim that they were successful in protecting the EU elections from interference.  

One expert the NYT quotes, Jakub Janda, the executive director of a Czech-policy group, described the Rapid Alert System as a failure: "It's a Potemkin village. People in the know, they don't take it seriously."  Few countries have contributed to the RAS, although it is not clear the reason for the lack of submissions stems from members' low view of the RAS or simply the lack of problematic cases of election disinformation.  EU officials defend the system as the first of its kind and the office is cautious about issuing an alert.  Presumably, too many alerts would undermine its effectiveness.  

Although the NYT article provides helpful information about the RAS, it seems too early to tell how well it operates after just one election.  The fact that no alerts issued during the past election is not evidence, in itself, of a failure of the system.  The EU officials' cautiousness in issuing alerts seems wise as their effectiveness would likely be diminished if alerts were frequently issued for every single piece of election disinformation.  In some cases, an alert might give more viewers to a piece of disinformation, also known as the Streisand effect. More generally, the experience shows the complex set of issues regulators face in trying to ensure the integrity of elections.  The EU does not take the same broad approach to free speech as the U.S. does, so the EU regulators have more authority to combat disinformation.  Yet, even with more expansive power, it's not clear how EU regulators can best fight election disinformation online, where posts and ads can have an effect on people as soon as they are viewed.  

 

 

House passes election security bill, H.R. 2722, Securing America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act

On Thursday, June 27, 2019, the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 2722, an election security bill aimed at strengthening the nation’s election system.  Introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D. Calif.), the Securing America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act authorizes $600 million to update voting equipment to comply with new standards.

  • The SAFE requirements mandate that voting machines be manufactured in the United States, stay disconnected from the Internet, and produce paper records; 
  • The SAFE bill provides an additional $175 million biannual appropriation for “sustainment” funds for maintain election infrastructure and
  • a $5 million grant program administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to research accessible paper ballot verification methods. [The Hill]

The bill passed the House floor in a near party-line vote 225 to 184; Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) was the only Republican to vote for the bill. [Washington Post] In a party conference before the vote, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described the bill as an effort to “further strengthen the defense of our democracy.” At the same conference, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “We’re standing with our House colleagues today—we’re standing with the American people today, to protect the integrity of our elections.” Much of the Democratic support stems from the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report finding foreign political influence in the 2016 presidential election.

Though legislators from both parties have acknowledged the need for increased election security, the parties disagree how to achieve this goal. While congressional Democrats view the bill as a safeguard against foreign interference, their Republican counterparts view the bill as a form of federal encroachment into an area (overseeing elections) traditionally regulated by the states. Rep. Rodney Davis (R.-Ill.), the ranking Republican of the House Administration Committee, stated that the 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.” [The Roll Call]

The bill faces steep opposition in the Senate. On Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) deemed the bill a “nonstarter.” Citing Congress’s previous grant of $380 million to states for election security, McConnell believes additional funding unnecessary, as reported by the New York Times. On Tuesday, June 25, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) tried to force a vote on a measure that would require backup paper ballots and authorize $1 billion in grants for states to improve election protection until Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) blocked the move. [The Hill]  In the week prior, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R.-Tenn.) similarly blocked Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) attempt to bring forth a bill requiring campaigns to report to the Federal Election Commission any foreign nationals who make donations or provide election assistance. [The Hill]

Criticizing Republican opposition to the bill, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) emphasized how Democrats would spend the upcoming July 4th holiday “fanning out all across the country” to advocate for election security measures. “We’re going to have a simple message: pass legislation with provisions of the SAFE Act, and tell Mitch McConnell that the future of our democracy is too important for him to stand in its way,” Sen. Wyden expressed. [The Roll Call]  Speaker Pelosi announced that election security officials would brief Congress on July 10 in an effort to further increase pressure on Leader McConnell. [The Hill]

Your Guide to Democratic Presidential Candidates' Proposals for Election Security

With the 2020 election approaching, Presidential candidates are sharing their views on how to protect election security. Although candidate engagement with the issue ranges from detailed plans to single sentences in online platforms, election security is beginning to play a larger role in national conversations about democracy and national security.  Below is a summary of where the Democratic presidential candidates stand in terms of strengthening election security.  This post will be updated as more candidates offer their own plans and views.   

Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) are co-sponsors of one of the most comprehensive plans is the Secure Elections Act, S. 2261, introduced by Republican Senator James Lankford. The bill would require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to create an advisory panel charged with developing detailed standards for the purchase and operation of voting systems. DHS would then fund state efforts to implement the panel’s recommendations. Finally, the plan would create a “Hack the Election” competition to increase early detection of election cybersecurity threats. Notably, the legislation has achieved bipartisan acclaim. Its primary sponsor is Senator James Lankford (R-OK) and two other Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors. Despite this bipartisan support, opposition from President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have stalled Senate consideration of the bill, according to the New York Times.  For more, visit Sen. Harris website and Sen. Klobuchar website.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has offered her own detailed election security proposal. Citing Russian interference in the 2016 election and outdated voting systems used by many states, Senator Warren calls for paper recording of vote tallies, post-election audits, and mandatory cybersecurity training for state election officials. Her plan would require the use of federally provided voting machines, a uniform federal ballot, and the development of a “security firewall” similar to Fort Knox.  For more, visit Sen. Warren website.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has also been vocal on election security issues. She has called for increased cybersecurity training for military officials and worked with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to propose a national commission to investigate election security vulnerabilities. The commission would be tasked with reviewing election interference in 2016, review incidences of election interference in other countries, and making “a full and complete accounting of what emerging threats and unmitigated vulnerabilities” exist at all levels of government. For more visit, Sen. Gillibrand website

Sen. Michael Bennet

Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) has proposed, among other reforms, requiring social media companies to prohibit foreign nationals from publishing political ads on their sites.  For more, visit Sen. Bennet website.

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) 

Rep. O'Rourke's platforms calls for improvements to election security that will "aggressively tackle interference in our elections." He specifically lists federal funding for states seeking to bolster their cybersecurity standards, provide paper balloting, and conduct "risk-limiting" election audits. Similar to Senator Bennet, he also mentions requiring social media sites to "disclose sponsors of political ads on their sites."

Vice Pres. Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Cory Booker, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg - no detailed proposals yet 

Still other candidates, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg, have recognized the importance of election security in public statements or through their online platform, but have not issued detailed proposals on how they would address the issue.  For more, visit the websites of Vice President Biden, Sen. Sanders, Sen. Booker, and Mayor Buttigieg

Other candidates

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang believes that “Americans should be able to vote via their mobile device, with verification done via blockchain.”  Other candidates have offered a range of ideas to address threats to election security. Former Governor John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and former Congressman John Delaney (D-MD) have each proposed the creation of a federal office designed to coordinate cybersecurity efforts, specifically including election security.  

Pres. Donald Trump

President Trump’s 2020 campaign website highlights his administration’s sanctions against Russian entities, the expulsion of Russian diplomats, and creation of “the Election Infrastructure Government and Sector Coordinating Councils” as key election security achievements. These claims, however, conflict with public statements from the President, who has repeatedly waivered on whether he believes Russia interfered in the 2016 election at all. As recently as last week, President Trump appeared to joke about election interference commenting in a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a G20 summit: "Don't meddle in the election, please." As noted above, President Trump has publicly opposed bipartisan legislation that aims to protect election infrastructure.

Summary

Given the prominence of election security concerns surrounding the 2016 election, it comes as no surprise that candidates are proactively addressing the issue in the run up to the next Presidential contest. A 2018 poll shows that 70% of Americans believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and 68% believe that the administration has not taken sufficient action to protect the election system from interference. As both Democratic primary candidates and President Trump tout their election security goals and accomplishments, it is clear that the issue will play a prominent role in the 2020 race.

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