Secure Elections Act sponsors eye lame duck session

Congress won't pass election security legislation before the midterms, but sponsors are working to get a vote on the floor before a new Congress is sworn in next year.

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The Senate Rules Committee chairman confirmed that the Secure Elections Act won’t get consideration for a vote until after next month’s midterm elections, while a key Democratic sponsor pushed lawmakers and states to come to a consensus during the lame duck session or risk placing the issue at the whim of a new Congress.

Speaking at an Oct. 3 summit hosted by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he continues to work to come up with a language for the Secure Elections Act that will gain the approval of state and local election officials and garner majority Republican support in Congress. Echoing Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), one of the bill’s primary sponsors, Blunt said he's not expecting the bill to move through his committee before the midterms.

“We are not going to get anything into law between now and election day,” said Blunt, who also noted that many elements of the bill are being voluntarily adopted at the state and local level. “I’d still like to see that memorialized in law so that five years from now, or six years from now or 10 years from now, it still continues to happen.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the primary Democratic sponsor, said she and other senators are working on refining the legislation, but noted that lawmakers have a short window of opportunity to pass the Secure Elections Act before the midterms reset the legislative calendar.

“We have a new version [of the bill] coming out, and we just ask you to work with us; I would love to have it get passed in the lame duck,” Klobuchar said. “For people that want to delay it or stall it beyond that, well that’s up to you because then we’ll have a new Congress.”

The Secure Elections Act looked poised for a floor vote in August or September before a Rules Committee markup was abruptly canceled. Blunt’s staff told FCW at the time that Republican senators were balking at some of the provisions after receiving complaints from state and local election officials, while Reuters reported that the White House came out against the bill at the last minute for similar reasons. Lankford and Klobuchar have continued to fight for the bill’s passage, but several prominent Democratic senators, including original co-sponsor Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), signed on to rival legislation spearheaded by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Many state election officials have called for consistent federal funding to upgrade voting and election systems, while simultaneously complaining that provisions that mandate what type of machines they can buy or how to audit election results represent federal overreach.

“[Auditing] was a big concern to many of the state election officials who contacted us when we thought we had a bill that everybody agreed on,” Blunt said. “I personally think that there should be a paper trail, something that can be counted after the election. I also believe that’s where everybody is headed whether they’re there right now or not.”

Congress allocated $380 million in grant funding earlier this year. Advocates in Congress pushed to extend another round of funding for next year, but Republicans -- including Lankford -- balked at the idea and zeroed out the spending, saying they wanted to see how states used the first tranche of money.

Both Blunt and Klobuchar previously served as state or local election officials, and Klobuchar said she empathized with state officials who might feel that Congress or the federal government are pushing mandates around election security without fully appreciating the consequences.

“I knew what it was like to have these mandates come from the state or the federal government,” Klobuchar said. “Often times they would send something down and there’d be no money, and we’d be stuck being the ones having to do it, so we don’t want that to happen here.”

At the same time, she said, states are facing “an international threat” from nation-state hacking groups, and Congress wants to ensure there are appropriate incentives for states to adopt best practices around cybersecurity, especially those seeking to take advantage of federal grant funding.

“We want to give you more money, states, to help you, but we want to also make sure that we take those best practices that we know are working, which is these backup paper ballots, or [things] we know will protect us if there’s a hack,” Klobuchar said.

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