Russian 'cyber war' behind bipartisan push to protect elections, senator says

“Election security is national security,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

ByABC News
December 21, 2017, 6:15 PM

— -- A bipartisan group of senior senators introduced a cybersecurity-focused bill Thursday designed to thwart foreign interference in U.S. elections, a direct response to the 2016 Russian interference in the presidential election.

“Election security is national security,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, ranking member of the Rules Committee with jurisdiction over federal elections, of the bill, titled The Secure Elections Act.

In the 2016 race, at least 21 U.S. states had their voter registration systems targeted by Russian hackers, and as many as four election-related systems were successfully breached, as first reported by ABC News.

The Secure Elections Act aims to block any possible future efforts by foreign adversaries by providing security clearances to state election officials to be briefed in real time, bolstering support for state election cybersecurity operations through a series of new, voluntary guidelines and streamlining information-sharing between federal intelligence entities and state election agencies.

It took nearly a year after the 2016 election for the Department of Homeland Security to officially notify state officials that hackers had targeted state-related systems.

“Our election systems have become a target for foreign adversaries,” said Klobuchar, D-Minn. “The freedom to choose our leaders and know with full confidence that those leaders were chosen in free and fair elections is something that Americans have fought and died for since our country was founded."

While the hacking attempts never compromised sensitive voter data or manipulated the election results, members are very concerned about potentially more sophisticated efforts in the future.

“We’ve got to speed up the communication between the federal government and the states,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of the Intelligence Committee and a lead author of the measure, said in an NBC interview. “We’ve got to bolster up the states in what they're doing to make sure they can audit their systems, and find a good way to cooperate together, or we’re going to find the same thing all over again.”

Lankford noted that right now there are 12 states that cannot audit their election systems. This is of particular concern, he said, as it's necessary to establish a voting paper trail backup system should the primary system be compromised.

“If states don’t do that ... we lose trust,” Lankford said, warning, “At the end of an election, the last thing you want to have is a close election and a loss of trust on what actually happened.”

Klobuchar, who called the Russian hacking efforts a “cyber war,” also sounded the alarm about outdated equipment.

“We can talk about this all we want, but if we have a major hack into an election when 42 states haven’t upgraded their equipment in 10 years, then it undermines the very democracy that’s the foundation of our country,” she said.

The Lankford-Klobuchar legislation establishes a grant program to give money to states to upgrade their voting-related equipment and get backup paper ballots.

Though many members in both chambers have voiced concern about the Trump administration's efforts to protect future elections, Lankford did say DHS was “very engaged” in helping craft the legislation and have been working with states to upgrade their systems.

Lankford said members would be scrutinizing states’ system upgrades, ensuring the security of the supply chain.

While the government was slow to respond to Russian interference in 2016, members of Congress, amid ongoing investigations into what happened, have already been introducing legislation to ward against future attacks.

The top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mark Warner of Virginia, has also introduced legislation with Klobuchar designed to shed light on nefarious Russian social media activity.

On Thursday, Warner told the news website Axios that he thinks conflict in the 21st century will be less about guns, bombs and rockets, and more about cyber warfare.

The Secure Elections Act also has the support of Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

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