Lawmakers questioned federal officials Wednesday over the importance of passing election security measure ahead of the 2020 presidential contest during a hearing.
Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in the Department of Homeland Security, testified during the House Homeland Security Committee hearing Tuesday that the federal government is “lightyears ahead” of where it was in 2016 when it came to communicating with state and local officials.
However, he said that improving outreach and communication with those officials is a top priority for his department ahead of the 2020 election.
And Krebs also said that being able to audit elections is also a pressing issue for his agency. He said that records of votes, like a paper trail, will help officials confirm the results of elections.
The DHS official also said that basic cyber hygiene for election officials remains a crucial issue, saying that he fears those gaps could expose vulnerabilities in systems that could be abused by hackers.
Election security has emerged as a top priority for security officials after the U.S. intelligence community determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
That interference was largely tied to Russians’ alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, which lead to the release of damaging emails in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
But potential vulnerabilities with voting machines have also been spotlighted as a way that bad actors could interfere with U.S. elections.
Thomas Hicks, the chairman of the Elections Assistance Commission, testified that states would need $500 million to $1 billion to replace all outdated voting equipment. He said that it’s up to each state to decide on when they would replace their systems, which is largely based on funding available at the time.
And he said the EAC has guidelines on how states can use and maintain aging voting equipment when officials can afford upgrades.
Congress allocated $380 million to states in 2017 to make improvements to their voting systems. Several states did not use the funds ahead of the 2018 midterms, but are able to use it in the future ahead of the 2020 or other races down the line.
Democrats, including committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), pressed the officials over the threats posed to U.S. systems from foreign actors. The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security found in a classified report submitted to the White House earlier this month that there was no foreign interference in the midterm election.
Krebs said he stood by that assessment, but noted in his opening statement there were ongoing foreign influence campaigns aimed at swaying Americans’ opinions at the time of the election.
Republicans on the panel used the hearing as an opportunity to speak out against Democrats’ sweeping government reform package, H.R. 1, which includes several election security and voting rights measures.
The conservative lawmakers took issue with measures like those requesting that a paper trail be available for each ballot cast, which they argued was a form of federalism and too large of a burden for states.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the committee, said after the hearing that he wished the panel were working on a separate election cybersecurity measure than those included in H.R. 1, labeling the package a “political instrument.”
“Since we have primary jurisdiction over cybersecurity – and I’ve told the chairman this – I’m hoping we can come back to this and we do start marking up some legislation that will have a chance of becoming law,” Rogers told The Hill.
“I want Chairman Thompson and I to sit down with [Senate Homeland Security] Chairman [Ron] Johnson and [ranking member Sen.] Gary Peters, the four of us and talk about this and what we think can be done and work to get something enacted, because this is is an important topic area,” he continued.