After years of contention about real and imagined security attacks on U.S. elections, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to consider and then pass H.R. 1, also known as the “For the People Act of 2019,” which includes provisions that would improve election security and help states improve their voting systems, as well as require transparency in political activities and strengthen ethics rules.
If passed, the bill would provide money so that states could replace their existing insecure voting machines, as well as require breach notification and set security standards for voting machines purchased using the federal funds. A primary feature of the new standards would be a requirement that voting machines use paper ballots.
A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate late in 2017 but was never considered. That bill was S.2261, the Secure Elections Act. This was a bipartisan bill, and the sponsors have said that they intend to reintroduce it early in the new Congress. The Senate bill does not require paper ballots, but rather requires some from of paper audit trail, including a printout created by a voting machine.
While H.R. 1 has a number of provisions in common with the Senate bill, the chances of it passing the Senate are remote. Partly this is because the bill contains a vast array of provisions, some of which are certain to meet opposition in the Senate. Those include the requirement for paper ballots, which have met with opposition based on a reluctance in the Senate to place restrictions on elections, which under the U.S. Constitution are conducted by the states.
In addition, some of the ethics provisions—among them requiring the disclosure of income tax returns by presidential and vice presidential candidates as well as requiring a candidate when elected president to divest certain financial interests that could produce a conflict of interest—are likely to find opposition in the White House.
Senate Bill More Limited Than House Bill
The bipartisan Senate bill, if it’s introduced in the same form as it was previously, is substantially more limited but, like the House bill, sets security standards for conducting elections. There the main sticking point is the manner in which the Senate bill specifies auditing, which is to have the voting machine produce the paper audit trail. The concern there is that someone who hacks into a voting machine could also create a false audit trail.
Both bills set up a series of grants to pay for upgrading election machines to be administered by the Election Assistance Commission. In addition, the bills set standards for security clearances, for secure handling of election results, and for security audits for voting machines and systems.
Both bills would also require reporting of possible cyber-security attacks, and they set up information sharing requirements about such attacks. The reporting requirements would also apply to election agencies and election service providers, and they would require that election service providers cooperate with any investigation.
At this point it’s not clear when (or, for that matter, if) the Senate bill will be reintroduced. However, if it is introduced in the same form as previously, it’s hard to see how there is much to find fault with. While the House members who introduced H.R. 1 might complain that the Senate bill’s requirements for paper ballots aren’t strong enough, the fact is that the bill is a well-considered effort to bring both security and sanity to the conduct of elections in the United States.
Congress Taking Security More Seriously
Regardless of the success of these two bills, what’s important is that the mood of Congress has changed in regard to security. Where once such bills vanished without a trace, now they’re being seriously considered. This matters more than you might think because once bills like this are actively passing through Congress, then a law of some form will likely be passed eventually.
Unfortunately, because of the level of dysfunction in Congress, and especially in the White House, a bill bringing real security standards to the election process faces an uncertain future. The Secure Elections Act is an excellent example. This bill is carefully crafted, has achievable goals, will help ensure secure elections that aren’t tampered with and has the advantage of sponsors from both major political parties.
So why is passage of the Senate bill in doubt? The Senate leadership may not bring it to the floor if there’s any question regarding support by the president. The House may not support it because the House leadership is angling for their version of a perfect election security bill that checks every conceivable box.
But because any bill has to pass both houses of Congress, there will never be a bill that both houses consider to be perfect. What can exist is an election security bill that’s good enough to do some real good. This is one case where it’s clear that the quest for perfection can prevent what’s good enough from happening. This is too bad because given the sorry state of election security in the U.S., being good enough is far better than what we have now.