More Senate Dems back alternative to Secure Elections Act

As bipartisan voting security legislation stalls, a bill to require paper ballots and post-election audits is gathering Democratic support in the Senate.

people voting (Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock.com)
 

For much of the past year, Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) Protecting American Votes and Elections Act has taken a backseat to the Republican-led, bipartisan-crafted Secure Elections Act in the election security debate on Capitol Hill.

Boosters for the bipartisan effort continue to work to get their bill passed during  the upcoming lame duck session. However, its stall out amid the perceived watering down of security provisions at the request of states in August combined with increasingly sunny forecasts for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections may have provided an opening for consideration of alternative legislation.

On Oct. 11, Wyden's bill picked up four more Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate, with Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Gary Peters (Mich.) all signing on.

"The longer we wait to put real measures in place to protect our election systems, the more vulnerable our democracy becomes to the threat of hackers and foreign adversaries," said Wyden in a statement announcing the new co-sponsors. "I welcome the support of my colleagues today, which demonstrates the increasing need for Congress to take real action to confront these threats head on."

While Democrats have been keen to work with the Republican majority in Congress to pass any legislation that would raise the security bar for voting machines and election systems, the increasing momentum within the caucus gathering behind the PAVE Act indicates it may end up being a more attractive option, particularly if Democrats end up taking both the House and the Senate in the midterms.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the original co-sponsors of the Secure Elections Act, hinted as much last week during a speech to the Election Assistance Commission, warning states and members of Congress that if they want to continue stalling efforts through the lame duck session, "well that's up to you because then we'll have a new Congress."

Wyden's legislation, which has a companion bill pending in the House, is viewed by many election security advocates as the tougher of the two, with provisions mandating that all states use paper ballots in some form and that they conduct rigorous, risk-limiting post-election audits, which voting organizations have called the gold standard in ensuring accurate vote counts.

The latest public version of the Secure Elections Act includes significantly weaker provisions on both fronts, allowing for digital audits that cybersecurity experts say would not be able to detect if a voting machine had been hacked. The measure would only require the use of paper ballots in new voting machines purchased through federal grant funding.

Christopher Krebs, the top cyber official at the Department of Homeland Security in charge of election security measures, said last week his office continues to "work with Sens. Lankford, Klobuchar and others on that bill -- we have not seen an updated, draft but ... I do think congressional action is useful to this space."

When asked by FCW if that openness toward congressional action extended to other bills such as PAVE, Krebs said he had yet to read the bill but outlined the elements DHS feels is important to any election security legislation.

"I haven't [read it], I'd have to look at the various options out there, but again, things that incentivize or lead to these security outcomes we really want to see --and that is again, as indicated in the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Mathematics report: paper ballots are good and auditability is good," Krebs said.

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