House Democrats approve bill to strengthen election security

WASHINGTON (AP) — Alarmed by Russian interference in 2016, House Democrats approved a bill Thursday aimed at strengthening election security for the 2020 race.

The measure, approved 225-184 mostly along party lines, would require paper ballots in federal elections and authorize $775 million in grants over the next two years to help states secure their voting systems. It also would prohibit voting systems from being connected to the internet or wireless technologies and tighten standards for private companies that provide election infrastructure.

The bill, known as Securing America’s Federal Elections, or SAFE, Act, is the first of several proposed by Democrats to boost election security as Congress belatedly moves to respond to Russian interference in the presidential election more than 2½ years ago. But it isn’t yet clear if the GOP-led Senate will vote on it.

“This bill closes dangerous gaps in our election systems and brings our security into the 21st century,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a floor speech Thursday.

Democrats sped up their efforts to strengthen election security after President Donald Trump said earlier this month that he was open to accepting a foreign power’s help in his 2020 campaign. Trump later walked back those comments, saying that “of course” he would go to the FBI or the attorney general if a foreign power offered him dirt about an opponent.

The controversy gave fresh energy to an issue Democrats have prioritized since they took the House majority in January. Special counsel Robert Mueller laid out details of Russian interference in the 2016 election and indicated that the Russians were likely to try to interfere again in 2020.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the bill approved Thursday would improve the resilience of federal elections and ensure that voting systems are safe from foreign cyberattacks.

“Nothing is more important to our democracy than ensuring that every American can safely and securely cast a ballot and have that vote counted accurately,” said Hoyer, D-Md.

He and other Democrats urged the Senate to approve the House bill swiftly. Florida Rep. Brian Mast was the only Republican to vote in favor of the bill, while Democrats unanimously supported it.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., called it critical legislation to invest in and upgrade the machinery of American democracy.

“It will help us combat the national emergency facing our country,” said Lofgren, who chairs the House Administration Committee.

“Aging equipment, under-resourced jurisdictions and interference by foreign entities or nonstate actors leaves our systems vulnerable to exploitation that can undermine confidence in election outcomes,” Lofgren said. “The time for Congress to act is now. We simply cannot leave state governments to defend themselves against the sophisticated cyber tactics of outside actors.”

Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Administration panel, poked fun at the Democrats’ bill, noting that the House “voted to force states to get rid of their electronic voting devices — on electronic voting devices” used by the chamber for decades.

“Federally mandating elections to states is not election security,” Davis said, adding that states should be free to choose election systems that best fit their needs. Davis has proposed his election security legislation that focuses on helping state and local election officials update voting infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have begun their own push to persuade McConnell to take up the election security bill.

At a news conference Wednesday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he and other Democrats will spend the July 4 recess “fanning out all across the country” to spread the word about election security efforts, “kind of like Paul Revere,” who warned the U.S. army that the British were coming ahead of the American Revolutionary War.

The message is simple, Wyden said: Pass election-security legislation “and tell Mitch McConnell the future of our democracy is too important for him to stand in its way.”

Matthew Daly covers climate, environment & energy policy