Despite all the talk and partisan bluster over a potential breach of voter databases by Russian hackers and the possibility that candidate Trump may have colluded with President Putin in 2016, there is very little movement towards bolstering election security in 2018.
Pointing fingers over what exactly happened in 2016, public officials, policymakers and advocates still can’t get on the same page about what to do moving forward.
There is an overall impression that efforts for the federal government to proactively plug security gaps in election systems seem like a priority on Capitol Hill in recent months. Yet, lawmakers in both House and Senate are finding it increasingly difficult to get a bill passed. The latest legislative attempt at just that unexpectedly failed, even with a bi-partisan push from three unlikely allies: Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH).
Lankford cooked up an amendment to include in the Senate version, with support from Harris (a frequently cited 2020 presidential contender) and Hassan, expanding agency focus on election security and, simply, forcing DHS to share digital intel on elections. No one figured there would be problems adding it to a House DHS re-authorization bill.
But in a letter obtained by the Philadelphia Tribune, ten secretaries of state balked at the amendment, raising red flags. “We question the need for any amendments regarding elections to be included in the DHS re-authorization act,” said the letter, which was written by Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson. “With so much scrutiny and ongoing investigations into the Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential election, it would be more prudent to allow the investigation reports to be finalized and sent to the Congress and the president with conclusive evidence of what may have occurred before assuming what a proper solution might be.”
The other secretaries of state who signed on are from Louisiana, Georgia, New Mexico, Missouri, Nevada, Idaho, Tennessee, Ohio and North Dakota.
The secretaries had issues with a section in the original DHS re-authorization bill H.R. 2825 that “allows Secret Service personnel unlimited access to polling places pursuant to the president’s direction.” In addition, Lawson and others felt that there just wasn’t enough time to review the amendments.
Ian Hauer, a spokesperson from Lawson’s office, remained upbeat about it, however. “Senators Lankford and Hassan have agreed to work with secretaries of state on new language,” Hauer told the Tribune. “My impression is that communication has been positive thus far.”
The correspondence, submitted to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, holds considerable weight given that Lawson is president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, a non-profit consortium organization and professional group which also coordinates discussions between state election officials on topics like voting system integrity. However, when contacted by The Tribune, an NASS spokesperson clarified that Lawson was writing the letter in her official capacity as Indiana secretary of state and not as the NASS president.
Lawson, a Republican appointed to the position in 2012 by then Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN), was a member of the now defunct Trump administration Voter Fraud Commission. She also co-sponsored the state’s strict voter ID law as Senate majority leader and publicly supported a widely criticized 2016 Indiana State Police raid of the Indiana Voter Registration Project’s offices based on unproven claims project employees were engaged in voter fraud during its registration of Black voters.
As NASS president, Lawson also seemed to subtly downplay concerns about Russian intrusion or hacking in the 2016 elections. “Notably, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has said repeatedly that the types of systems Russian actors targeted were NOT involved in vote tallying,” Lawson wrote in an open public letter last week on the NASS website. “Vote tallying systems have a lower cyber-risk profile than the other connected systems we rely upon to bring voters information and services.”
The letter to the Senate was not very bi-partisan. Only one of the ten secretaries of state — New Mexico’s Maggie Toulouse-Oliver — is a Democrat. The nine other secretaries of state who signed on to the letter are Republicans. Most of the states who signed on are also places with restrictive voter ID or voter suppression laws where either early voting and polling place access is limited. All the states, except New Mexico and North Dakota, are also members of the troubled Interstate Crosscheck System created by Voter Fraud Commission Vice-Chair and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Voting rights advocates have side-eyed the system as discriminatory and experts, including researchers for a recent 2017 University of Pennsylvania study, have pointed to it as deeply flawed.
G.S. Potter, Executive Director of the Strategic Institute for Intersectional Policy, found the letter’s timing odd and reflective of larger political divisions at play. “When you look at the divisions between who is for election security and who is against election security within the Republican Party, the most consistent divisions are between the alt-right factions of the Party and the old guard,” Potter told the Tribune. “For example, the leading proponents of the GOP election security bill are Lindsay Graham and James Lankford. They are more aligned with Old Guard GOP.”
There has been heightened awareness around the issue of election security since the 2016 election, with observers still trying to assess whether or not (and how deeply) suspected Russian hackers probed U.S. voter databases — about 21 states in all, according to federal officials. Meanwhile, consensus grows that such cyber-intrusions will become more prevalent in the 2018 elections and more sophisticated, with states — especially competitive battlegrounds — being less secure. In February, Sen. Harris was grilling Homeland Security officials for moving too slow on election security measures, particularly as primaries in states like Texas were right around the corner.
“I would want to know that you are aware of the … dates for their primary and that it would be your goal to have their [security risk] assessment complete before their primaries actually occur,” Harris said. “It would seem to me to be a high priority for the Department of Homeland Security.”
While the agency may be prioritizing election security, federal intelligence officials and other observers admit they’re not getting much in the form of support or clear direction from the White House on next steps. Part of that could be due to the clumsy optics surrounding multiple Trump-Russia collusion investigations.
That’s worrying most election security and voting rights observers. A recently release Center for American Progress report of election security in all 50 states shows not one state received an “A” grade, and only 11 states received a “B.” Most states received a “C” grade and a dozen a “D” — along with five states as failing. Indiana is one of the failing states with “incomplete” cybersecurity training requirements. All of the states signed on to the Lawson letter, with the exception of New Mexico (a “B” grade), are either D or F grade states in the CAP report.
Others, like Princeton Election Consortium’s Sam Wang, worry the Electoral College is at high risk, too. “Today’s Electoral College opens a giant security hole,” notes Wang. “Hackers can target as few as five states to swing an election.”
Many states are already moving away from digital machines — most being the Digital Recording Electronic machines purchased with federal money in the wake of the controversial 2000 election — and either opting for a total paper ballot system that can be auditable, a hybrid digital-paper approach or edging closer to a final decision in that direction.
Pennsylvania — identified as a “D” grade state by the CAP report — is one of those states that issued a paper ballot mandate earlier this year, but mainly for newly purchased voting equipment – without money for it. “This directive will ensure that the next generation of the commonwealth’s voting systems conforms to enhanced standards of resiliency, auditability and security,” said Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of State Robert Torres. “The current voting equipment in counties works and can be audited. But new voting machines with paper ballots or voter-verifiable paper backup will improve auditability and augment security.” Still, Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) has yet to secure funding for new systems, and the Republican-led General Assembly isn’t offering any.
And even though Pennsylvania is using a paper ballot and DRE method to count votes, there is no paper trail. Neighboring New Jersey and Delaware are two of seven states in the nation using only DREs and providing no paper trail. States without paper trails, incidentally, are also states with the some of the largest concentrations of Black and Brown voters.
Yet, there are concerns that so many states relying on so many different approaches does not represent a solid foundation for treating election systems as critical infrastructure, which is what Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA) was attempting to do with re-introduced Election Integrity Act legislation. “We have all heard the daily discussions about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and we have seen local election officials engage in Jim Crow-style voter intimidation in an effort to suppress minority voters and seen the Secretary of State compromise private voter information,” said Johnson last year. “It is time for Congress to step up and protect everyone’s right to vote in federal elections.”
Congress never did.