House Panel Grapples With Election Security Ahead of 2020

WASHINGTON (CN) – A bipartisan warning came out of a House committee Tuesday that the U.S. election system remains vulnerable to attacks from Russia and other foreign adversaries as the 2020 election nears.

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

Democrats on two subpanels of the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology called for a federal response to safeguard voting across the country, shadowed by some Republicans who cautioned elections should remain in the hands of state officials. But members were in agreement that every point of connectivity across the increasingly digital election system poses a vulnerable risk to the “cherished” democratic process.

This consensus comes on the heels of special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election in “sweeping and systematic fashion.”

Experts at Tuesday’s hearing said across the country, election systems are weakened by aging technology and lack of expertise among personnel. Efforts to make voting more accessible and convenient also expose systems to targeting by foreign actors.

On the House floor Tuesday afternoon, Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Md., urged his colleagues to support legislation that would provide more than $1 billion to bolster election security.

“We were not attacked as Democrats or Republicans or Independents — our nation was attacked,” Raskin said. “I would hope that all of us would be standing together as Americans to reject foreign interference in our elections.”

The Securing America’s Federal Elections, or SAFE, Act, introduced by Democrats last week, would authorize grants to secure election infrastructure and require states to implement risk-limiting audits.

Many counties across the U.S. do not currently implement any auditing functions, said Neal Kelley, who serves as the registrar of voters in Orange County, California, the country’s fifth largest voting jurisdiction.

But pushing too many mandates on election officials could cause them to opt out of the grant program, warned Paul Ziriax, secretary of the Oklahoma State Election Board.

Representative Ralph Norman, R-S.C., accused Democrats of rushing the bill to the floor to satisfy “far-left progressives” before asking the committee to review the proposal.

He dug into detailed provisions of the bill, asking Ziriax specifically whether a requirement to print ballots on recycled paper impacts security.

“With our current voting system, it cannot use recycled paper because of the sensitivity of the scanners. If we were required to use recycled paper it would actually run the risk of causing false readings,” Ziriax said.

Representative Sean Casten, D-Ill., reminded his colleagues that the Mueller report outlined how his home state was targeted by Russian hackers when a malicious code infiltrated the state board of elections network, accessing millions of voters’ information.

“The Russian worm kept going through all the way through to the voter registration database,” Casten said. “This is really scary stuff.”

When asked by the Illinois congressman whether they expect Russia will employ the tactic — known as sequel injection — again in 2020, the panel of experts nodded in unanimous agreement.

Across the panel, experts also agreed with the importance of House bill’s prohibition of internet connectivity in ballot systems.

“The use of the internet or any network connected to the internet for a voter to cast a ballot or the return of a marked ballot should not be permitted,” Kelley agreed. “There is no known technology known that guarantees the secrecy, verifiability and security of a marked ballot transmitted over the internet.”

The lack of dependable technological safeguards has some states turning back the clock on voting methods, noted Representative Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., who said her state returned to paper ballots after Russian attacks on electronic ballots in 2016.

Representative Ben McAdams, D-Utah, inquired as to whether same-day voter registration might mitigate attacks.

“If a malicious actor had come in intending to disenfranchise a large percentage of those voters, but those voters still show up at their polling place and could register right there, the attack would be thwarted,”  Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney said.

Kelley agreed that same-day registration could be useful but warned that it is not a long-term solution.

“We should be looking at the database as a whole and finding ways to detect anomalies in the database itself,” Kelley said.

But he noted that even with advanced research in technology and promises for increased funding, the election databases currently in place can be jeopardized by a momentary mistake on the part of an official.

“One of the things that keeps me up at night is how well trained are my elections staff, to make sure they are not clicking on links they are not supposed to be clicking on,” Kelley said.

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