(CN) – With the Iowa caucuses less than nine months away, some of the Democrats hoping to replace President Donald Trump are calling on Congress to make the 2020 elections Russia-proof by turning to traditional paper ballots.
Seeking renovations to the nation’s election infrastructure, several U.S. senators running for president introduced legislation Wednesday that would require states to use paper ballots and implement cybersecurity protections for all federal elections.
“We need to be honest about the fact that a foreign government interfered in the 2016 election — and that if we continue to do nothing to improve our election infrastructure, we’re leaving our country vulnerable to attack once again,” Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Coined the Protecting American Votes and Elections Act of 2019, or PAVE, the security update would force states to replace paperless voting machines with paper options that can’t connect to the internet. It would also require states to conduct mandatory post-election audits regardless of how close the results are.
If approved, the Department of Homeland Security would be tasked with setting mandatory security standards for machines, voter registration databases and results websites used in federal elections.
Voting and civil rights groups have long advocated for replacing machines that don’t leave a “paper trail.”
Without a paper backup, they warn the machines could be hacked and election results changed via the use of undetectable malware. They prefer paper ballots that are more tamper-evident, auditable and resistant to viruses that plague devices connected to the internet.
While most states use some sort of paper ballot system and many perform “risk-limiting” audits, a handful of others don’t require any post-election auditing. Critics say the patchwork system leaves some states open to election hacks.
“For years now, security researchers have been raising concerns with outdated voting equipment used across the country. But paper records that can be verified by voters and hand-audited increase the integrity of our elections and ward off potential interference,” said Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, senior staff technologist at Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Other 2020 Democratic candidates sponsoring the legislation include Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election shined a spotlight on outdated voting technology.
This past September, a federal judge found that Georgia’s 27,000 paper-less voting machines were susceptible to hacking but allowed the state to use the machines in the November election – ultimately agreeing with state officials there wasn’t enough time to overhaul the system before the election. The judge advised the state to quickly update its technology.
In the end, Republican candidate Brian Kemp narrowly defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams in a race fraught with election security charges.
The Georgia Legislature has since passed a bill that would replace the state’s electronic voting machines with a touchscreen machine that produces a barcode receipt. Critics say the touchscreen option is less safe than the traditional paper ballot method the Democrats are calling for.
Abrams, founder of the voting rights group Fair Fight Action, says the Democrats’ proposal for a uniform system will prevent similar election fiascos in 2020.
“The PAVE Act will safeguard the votes of Americans in every state in the union, regardless of whether state elections officials find doing so politically expedient,” Abrams said in a statement.
Under PAVE, the federal government would dole out $500 million to state and local governments to buy new equipment and another $250 million for disabled-accessible ballot marking devices. The new requirements would not pertain to state or local elections.
“I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing this legislation because paper ballots are the single best way to secure our elections. Foreign governments can’t hack a piece of paper,” Harris said.