The version of the Senate’s major election security bill that the Rules Committee marks up this week will not require states to conduct post-election audits using paper records, a major blow to election integrity advocates who are now sharply criticizing the bill. The chairman’s mark of the Secure Elections Act, S. 2593 (115), “would allow for and validate audits of electronic ballot images, which are just plain worthless as a safeguard against cyberattacks,” Susan Greenhalgh, policy director at the National Election Defense Coalition, told MC. Voting system vendors, which encourage local election officials to buy electronic systems, tout the supposed auditability of their digital ballots, despite cybersecurity experts nearly unanimously warning against electronic audits. “This sort of audit would be very appealing to election officials,” Greenhalgh said of the weakened provision, “as it would eliminate the need for extensive ballot manifests and tracking of paper ballots.”
At issue is the section of the bill that describes the post-election audit guidelines to be developed by a new advisory committee. The previous draft of the bill required that “election agencies within the State inspect (by hand and not by device) a random sample of the marked ballots and thereby establish high statistical confidence in the election result.” The new version eliminates the parenthetical stipulation of a hand check, which effectively mandated paper-based audits. Verified Voting, one of the country’s leading election integrity groups, pulled its support based on the change. Marian Schneider, the group’s president, said in a statement that her organization “cannot in good conscience support the Secure Elections Act unless the previous audit language of the bill is restored.”
Voting security experts bemoaned the change as one of several provisions that they considered sub-par. “The Chairman’s mark of the SEA has been weakened past the point of effectiveness, and if the text is not amended, it might actually make election cybersecurity problems worse,” J. Alex Halderman, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan, told MC. He blasted the audit provision, saying, “The only practical way to robustly defend voting machines against sophisticated attackers is to ensure that results are manually spot-checked, without reliance on potentially compromised equipment.” Halderman added that if this version of the bill became law, states conducting vendor-encouraged digital audits “will say that they satisfy the auditing requirement, and additional states are certain to adopt them simply to claim compliance.”
The exact reason for the change is unclear, though several election integrity advocates have told MC that the bill’s cosponsors, Sens. James Lankford and Amy Klobuchar, as well as the Rules Committee, led by Sens. Roy Blunt and Klobuchar, are facing significant pressure from states and vendors to water down the legislation. A spokeswoman for Klobuchar’s Rules Committee staff did not respond to a request for comment.