Senate bill keeps election systems critical

Editorial credit: Bing Wen / 

A new bill looks to maintain the recent designation of election systems as critical infrastructure while helping state officials access classified threat information.

Amid reports of Russian efforts to hack state election systems, Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on Oct. 31 introduced the Securing America's Voting Equipment (SAVE) Act to protect against future interference.

"Our democracy hinges on protecting Americans' ability to fairly choose our own leaders," Heinrich said in a statement. "Until we set up stronger protections of our election systems and take the necessary steps to prevent future foreign influence campaigns, our nation's democratic institutions will remain vulnerable."

The bill would permanently uphold the Department of Homeland Security's designation of election systems as critical infrastructure. The designation, made by Obama-era DHS chief Jeh Johnson and supported by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, guarantees states priority in DHS assistance requests and greater access to information on cyber vulnerabilities on a voluntary basis.

The bill would also require the Director of National Intelligence to sponsor security clearances for the chief election official in each state and authorize DNI to share with states classified information regarding election security. It also creates a joint security program with private-sector vendors to protect against electronic threats.

As an incentive for states, the bill would authorize a grant program for them to upgrade electronic, physical and administrative aspects of their voting apparatus. The Government Accountability Office would then conduct an audit to make sure states comply with the terms of the grant.

"The fact that the Russians probed the election-related systems of 21 states is truly disturbing, and it must serve as a call to action to assist states in hardening their defenses against foreign adversaries that seek to compromise the integrity of our election process," Collins said. "Our bipartisan legislation would assist states in this area by identifying best practices to protecting voting equipment, and ensuring states have the resources they need to implement those best practices."

While some states have pushed back against the DHS designation, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver voiced her support of the legislation.

"Our election equipment must be statutorily designated as critical infrastructure in order to effectively combat election meddling by those who wish to undermine American democracy," she said. "The SAVE Act will give state election officials like me more tools to do just that."

In March, 10 House Democrats sponsored a bill that would make permanent the critical infrastructure designation, but the bill received no Republican co-sponsors and little legislative traction.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter


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