Lawmakers seek to ban foreign foes from owning U.S. election infrastructure

October 11, 2018 GMT

Investments from foreign adversaries will no longer be welcome at companies involved in supporting the computer infrastructure that runs U.S. election networks, according to legislation introduced by Maryland’s two senators.

Democrats Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin said on Thursday they were proposing the bill, known as the Protect Our Elections Act, along with Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican.

The legislation follows revelations from Maryland last summer that a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin was the largest investor in a fund tied to the firm, ByteGrid, which hosts a critical portion of the state’s election management system.

While no evidence ever surfaced that any changes came about because of the foreign ownership, the disclosure to state officials of the existence of the foreign ownership was made by the FBI not the company itself. ByteGrid has since said the company’s investors have no involvement or control in company operations.

The measure includes public disclosure and annual reporting requirements, which mandate that the companies involved in administering U.S. elections reveal any foreign owners if any ownership changes occur. It also requires state and local governments to conduct annual evaluations of their election service providers to ensure that the firms are solely owned and controlled by Americans.

“Our free and fair elections are central to what makes America’s democracy an example to the world,” Mr. Van Hollen said in a statement. “We cannot allow Russia or any other foreign adversaries to own our election systems.”

“This isn’t just a hypothetical issue,” he added. “It happened right here in my home state of Maryland.”

The legislation includes an exception for election service providers created or organized by the U.S.’s intelligence-sharing partners known as the Five Eyes Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

“We know that the Russians were relentless in their efforts to meddle in the 2016 elections, and that those efforts are ongoing,” Ms. Collins said in a statement. “The Protect Our Elections Act would help strengthen the integrity of our election process and instill confidence among voters by requiring election infrastructure vendors to be owned and controlled by American citizens or our closest allies.”