For the first time since the 2016 election, Congress is poised to move legislation to combat hackers and online trolls targeting American democracy.
Senior Republicans and Democrats will come together on Thursday to stump for a revised version of a stalled election security proposal that has gained new momentum in recent days. The measure has now gathered enough backing from high-level lawmakers that it could prove the first concrete action taken in response to repeated calls from cybersecurity experts, election integrity advocates and state officials for Congress to help cash-strapped states upgrade their aging voting technology in the wake of the Russian hacks and disinformation campaigns that roiled the 2016 presidential race.
When the updated bill is reintroduced Thursday afternoon, it will include sponsorship from the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, giving the legislation the leadership backing it previously lacked. And chairs of other relevant committees have also indicated an openness to swiftly advancing the bill’s provisions.
The legislation, known as the Secure Elections Act, “helps the states to prepare our election infrastructure for the possibility of interference from not just Russia, but possibly another adversary like Iran or North Korea or a hacktivist group,” Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, one of the four Republicans now on the measure, said in a statement.
“With 2018 elections across the country underway, the urgency to act is clear,” added California Sen. Kamala Harris, one of four Democrats backing the bill.
The centerpiece of the legislation, originally introduced in December, is an election security grant program that would disburse money to states. The measure would also direct the creation of voluntary voting cybersecurity guidelines that states could get money to implement.
Additionally, the measure aims to improve the exchange of cyber threat intelligence between D.C. and the states, long a sore spot for local officials who say they’ve been kept out of the loop on vital information about Russian hackers.
“We must streamline cybersecurity information-sharing,” Lankford said.
While those provisions have remained largely in place since December, lawmakers have negotiated a few tweaks to ameliorate some concerns.
The revised bill, obtained by POLITICO, moves control of grant funding from the Homeland Security Department to the Election Assistance Commission, a panel that House Republicans have tried to eliminate funding for in the past.
It also ditches a proposed voluntary “Hack the Election” program that would have doled out rewards to ethical hackers who find digital flaws in election systems, a potential compromise to local officials and voting technology vendors who didn’t like the idea.
The overhauled legislation’s release comes just two day after the Senate Intelligence Committee released its own recommendations for strengthening the country’s election defenses as part of the panel’s year-long probe into Russia’s 2016 election meddling and possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign on those efforts.
The committee’s suggestions largely mirrored the bipartisan bill, suddenly giving the dormant bill new life.
The measure already had the broadest ideological support of any offering in Congress.
In addition to Harris and Lankford, the bill also had the support of other Intelligence Committee members like left-leaning Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from main. Outside of the Intelligence panel, the bill also had support from hawkish Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a rumored 2020 presidential hopeful.
After the Intelligence Committee held a hearing on Wednesday to discuss its election security recommendations, it became clear that a consensus was slowly forming around the Secure Elections Act. Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and panel ranking member Mark Warner (D-Va.) both publicly said they would back the legislation, a major stamp of approval for the measure.
In fact, Burr and Warner had already helped fight to include provisions from the legislation in the $1.3 trillion spending deal reached by congressional leaders Wednesday night. The omnibus legislation would provide $380 million for election security grants, similar to the bill's funding proposal.
Lankford — and other supporting the bill — applauded the inclusion, but stressed that lawmakers must go further.
“Congress still must pass this legislation to put these needed election improvements into law,” he said.
“It’s not enough,” Klobuchar agreed. “There are 227 days until the next federal election and primaries have already begun. Congress should pass the bipartisan Secure Elections Act immediately.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Burr signaled that portions of the legislation might go through the Senate Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Rules Committee, which both have jurisdiction over different provisions.
Incoming Rules Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has indicated he’s interested in moving sections of the bill. Blunt will take over the committee in early April, and told POLITICO that one of his “early hearings” would be on election security and that the gathering ““in all likelihood, would lead to some kind of legislation.”
Collins warned that every delay in passing the bill is time the Russians have to disrupt American democracy.
“We know for certain that the Russians were relentless in their efforts to meddle in the 2016 elections, and that those efforts are ongoing,” she said.