Citing what he called the “ongoing crisis,” one of the U.S. Senate’s staunchest proponents of sweeping election-security reforms renewed a call Thursday for Congress to immediately intervene and impose mandatory security standards on election systems nationwide.
“If there was ever a moment when Congress needed to exercise its clear constitutional authorities to regulate elections, this is it,” wrote Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat of Oregon, and member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“America is facing a direct assault on the heart of our democracy by a determined adversary. We would not ask a local sheriff to go to war against the missiles, tanks and planes of the Russian Army. We shouldn’t ask a county election IT employee to fight a war against the full capabilities and vast resources of Russia’s cyber army.”
“That approach failed in 2016 and it will fail again,” Wyden said.
The senator’s remarks form part of the intelligence committee’s 61-page report outlining Russia’s “extensive” efforts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections. The heavily-redacted document details a range of hostile activities undertaken by Moscow in repeated efforts to penetrate the U.S. election infrastructure, which was unprepared, it says, to combat the years-long assault.
For example, the report describes the use by some states of “aging voting equipment,” and in particular, “voting machines that had no paper record of votes,” which are inherently “vulnerable to exploitation by a committed adversary.” Despite the renewed focus on election security since 2016, “some of these vulnerabilities remain,” it says.
Chairman Richard Burr said in a statement that, in 2016, the U.S. was “unprepared at all levels of government for a concerted attack from a determined foreign adversary.” However, the Department of Homeland Security and state and local election officials have “dramatically changed” their approach to securing the elections and are “working together to bridge gaps in information sharing and shore up vulnerabilities.”
Vice Chairman Mark Warner concurred, saying the committee’s investigation had found the U.S. was unable to “effectively respond or defend” against the attacks, but that today the U.S. intelligence community and election officials are taking steps collaboratively “to ensure that our elections are far more secure today than they were in 2016.”
Wyden, however, vehemently disagreed with the rosier assessments offered by fellow committee members concerning the nation’s capacity to defend itself against foreign cyberattacks—which are ongoing and unlikely to cease, according to the nation’s chief intelligence officials.
“They’re doing it as we sit here,” former Special Counsel Robert Mueller told lawmakers in his testimony on Wednesday.
In a five-page dissent tacked onto the report, Wyden stated he could not support the committee’s recommendation that each state should remain responsible for their own election security. The majority opinion of the report had concluded: “States should remain firmly in the lead on running elections, and the federal government should ensure they receive the necessary resources and information.”
Republicans in the Senate recently blocked four bills aimed at bolstering the nation’s election infrastructure, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell largely framing the issue as a “partisan” endeavor by the Democrats. GOP lawmakers widely claim that Congress effectively did its job already when it appropriated $380 million last year in the form of election security grants, which states could pull from voluntarily.
One bill, the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act, would have authorized $600 million in election assistance to upgrade outdated voting machines—still widely in use, as the committee’s report notes—and, further, would require the use of backup paper ballots able to be verified via post-election audits. Several GOP lawmakers, including McConnell, claim that such requirements violate the states’ right to conduct their own elections in the best way they see fit.
While successfully blocking one bill last year aimed at bolstering election security nationwide, the White House stated that Republicans would not support any bill that “moves power or funding from the states to Washington for the planning and operation of elections.”
“Congress’s constitutional role in regulating federal elections is well-established,” said Wyden, who has pursued federal legislation requiring not only paper ballots, but risk-limiting audits endorsed by statistical experts. “Indeed, pursuant to the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Congress’s authority over congressional elections is ‘paramount to that of the states.’”
“The federal government’s response to this ongoing crisis cannot be limited offers to provide resources and information, the acceptance of which is voluntary,” he said. “If the country’s elections are to be defended. Congress must also establish mandatory, nation-wide cybersecurity requirements.”