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Senate panel proposes ways to improve election security

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday released a bipartisan list of recommendations to states and the federal ...

Posted: Mar. 20, 2018 8:44 PM
Updated: Mar. 20, 2018 8:44 PM

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday released a bipartisan list of recommendations to states and the federal government to bolster election security, the first in a series of reports the panel is planning to put out summing up its findings and recommendations in the Russia investigation.

The half-dozen recommendations from Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina and ranking Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia included a request for Congress to approve more funding for states to improve their election security, as well as urging the Department of Homeland Security to do a better job of communicating with state officials and getting them access to classified information they need.

The recommendations were unveiled at a bipartisan news conference attended by most of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a sharp contrast to the House Intelligence Committee's plans to vote this week on its final report on possible Russian collusion, in which Democrats and Republicans are at odds.

Burr said the committee is preparing to tackle its reports one by one for each of the four subjects it's investigating -- election security, the intelligence community assessment of Russian meddling, social media and collusion -- but he has meticulously avoided addressing the collusion question that has roiled President Donald Trump amid the multiple probes on Russia.

Burr said he hoped the committee could finish its investigation into each of those areas one month at a time. At Tuesday's news conference to roll out the recommendations, Burr made an effort not to discuss the committee's investigation into collusion, saying the committee would take questions only about election security. He allowed his committee members who have worked on that issue to answer questions.

When the senators were asked about Trump congratulating Russian President Vladimir Putin on his election victory, they stood silently for a moment. "That's off election security," Warner eventually said, prompting laughter from the senators before they moved on to the next question.

"It is clear the Russian government was looking for the vulnerabilities in our election system, and highlighted some of the key gaps," Burr said. "There's no evidence that any vote was changed."

The recommendations came ahead of a planned hearing on the issue Wednesday, where Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and former Secretary Jeh Johnson will testify.

The panel said they wanted to make clear that states should remain in charge of elections, even if the federal government can play a larger role in helping to keep them secure.

"We think there are ways the federal government can support those states, but clearly we've got to get some standards in place that assure every state that at the end of the day they can certify their vote totals," Burr said.

Burr and Warner said the federal government and the states were unprepared for Russia's attacks during the 2016 election, in which the Kremlin tried to access 21 state election systems and was successful in penetrating at least one state's voter database.

The committee urged Congress to pass legislation that would provide funding to help states pay for beefed-up election security, including a grant program for the states.

Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, has a bill that would establish the $386 million grant program, and Burr suggested the measure could be included in the $1.3 trillion government spending bill that Capitol Hill is trying to pass this week.

Lankford said the funding was intended as a way to aid states but that it was not intended to be used in place of states investing in their own election infrastructure.

"It is not our desire to be able to fully fund elections within individual states," Lankford said. "There's not enough funding we could provide nor should provide to every county, every state, in America to be able to oversee all their election equipment."

The committee included recommendations for the federal government as well as state and local officials.

They included encouraging the federal government to "create effective deterrence" in response to cyber attacks and urging the DHS to expedite security clearances for state and local election officials.

"One of the most frustrating things, in the aftermath of this information coming out, it actually took the Department of Homeland Security nearly nine months to notify the top election officials that their state systems had been messed with," Warner said. "In the ensuing months, I think DHS has picked up its game. But there's still much to do."

The panel also recommended that the intelligence community prioritize attributing cyber attacks and declassify information quickly when needed to provide warnings to state and local officials.

The committee urged states to "rapidly replace" outdated election systems, and purchase machines with a paper trail and no Wi-Fi capability. States should also implement more widespread audits of election results, the committee said.

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