Threat Info Sharing Key Part of Election Security BillSAVE Act Would Give Top State Election Officials Security Clearances
Under bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate this week, federal authorities would share classified cyber threat information with state election officials. The bill would also provide grants to states to support election security efforts.
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The Securing America's Voting Equipment Act of 2017, or the SAVE Act, would authorize the director of national intelligence to provide a security clearance to each state's chief election officer as well as one designee.
The bill would authorize the national intelligence director to share with states classified information related to threats to voting systems and the electoral process.
Introduction of the SAVE Act comes as Special Counsel Robert Mueller and several congressional committees investigate Russia's attempt to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election by targeting state election voting centers and state-level voter registration databases (see Report: Russia's US Election Interference Was Widespread). No evidence has surfaced to show votes were changed through breaches.
Establishing Strong Protections
"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," says Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who is a sponsor of the bill along with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Both are members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
State election officials have complained that the federal government has done a poor job of sharing cyber threat information with them. The SAVE Act would codify U.S. voting systems as critical infrastructure, which should help facilitate information sharing.
Last year, then-Department of Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson designated the electoral system as critical infrastructure. After that move, however, some state election officials expressed concerns that the federal government would take charge of the voting system, a notion Johnson dismissed (see States: Rescind Electoral Critical Infrastructure Designation).
The chief election official of New Mexico, Secretary of State Toulouse Oliver, endorsed the legislation, saying it would give state election officials more tools to secure the election process. "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," Oliver said in a statement.
Grants to States
In the United States, each state regulates elections, even those for the president. The SAVE Act is written to ensure that the states maintain control over their election processes, although the legislation describes federal initiatives to assist states to ensure the security of state systems.
For instance, the legislation would authorize critical infrastructure grants for states to upgrade their election systems and administrations.
The federal government would provide grants to states to develop their own solutions to ensure the protection and integrity of the physical, electronic and administrative components of their electoral systems, according to a summary of the bill. The amount of the grants was not specified in the legislation; money for the initiative would come through a separate appropriations bill. States would submit grant applications explaining how they would update and secure their election machines, voter tally systems, voter registration databases and administration procedures from electronic and physical threats. States accepting the grants would be subject to DHS inspector general audits.
Also, the Government Accountability Office would conduct a "robust audit" of state voting systems to ensure that elections held using upgraded equipment funded by the grants conform to the initiative's goals.
Another provision of the bill would have the DHS secretary create a so-called "cooperative hack the election program" to partner with vendors to identify new threats to electronic voting systems. The program's goal would be to help protect electoral systems from outside interference by encouraging stakeholders to work cooperatively with election system vendors to penetrate inactive voting and voter registration systems to discover vulnerabilities and develop defenses.
"Our bipartisan legislation would assist states in this area by identifying best practices to protect voting equipment and ensuring states have the resources they need to implement those best practice," Collins says.