A bipartisan group of Senators introduced legislation Thursday to improve voting system cyber security efforts meant to prevent future election interference.

The Secure Elections Act, sponsored by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), sets new guidelines for cyber threat information sharing between State officials and the Department of Homeland Security, establishes an advisory panel to oversee election security guidelines, and creates a grant program to upgrade voting infrastructure.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).

The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), follows concern regarding the year-long wait it took DHS to inform 21 states that their voting systems faced hacking attempts from Russian actors in the 2016 election.

“During the 2016 election, intelligence reports have factually established that Russia hacked presidential campaign accounts, launched cyber attacks against at least 21 state election systems, and attacked a U.S. voting systems software company. While there is no evidence that a single vote outcome was tampered with, this dangerous precedent should be a wake-up call as we head into the 2018 election cycle,” Lankford wrote in a statement.

The senators’ bill looks to boost DHS’ role in assisting states with election threats as states prepare for potential interference in the upcoming 2018 midterms. DHS oversees election systems after the sector was deemed critical infrastructure in January.

Lankford and Klobuchar sent a letter Tuesday to new DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen urging her to making election cyber security a priority for her department.

Under the legislation, the DHS secretary takes the lead with election information sharing. The secretary is tasked with providing threat indicators and defensive measures to states who solicit the department’s help.

“With the 2018 elections just around the corner, Russia will be back to interfere again. We must act now to fortify our election system against attacks by foreign powers in a way that is smart and allows for effective communication and information-sharing between election and intelligence officials,” said Harris in a statement.

The DHS Secretary and the Director of National Intelligence must produce a joint report no later than 30 days after the bill is enacted detailing intelligence on foreign threats to elections. The report, which will also be provided annually at the beginning of each fiscal year, will include input from state election officials.

To allow state and local officials access to more classified election threat intelligence, the bill calls on the DHS secretary to establish a new process for expediting security clearances.

The bill also directs DHS to establish an independent advisory panel to create new election cyber security guidelines. The panel’s oversight is voluntary, and states may also choose to accept resources to implement the new rules.

A new $386 million block grant program in the bill would also assist states who wish to receive assistance in upgrading their voting technology.

“The U.S. needs to improve and modernize protections for our voting systems, registration data, and ballots to prevent theft, manipulation, and malicious computer hacking. Until we take these necessary steps, our nation’s democratic institutions will remain vulnerable,” Heinrich said in a statement.

DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) would oversee the grant program. The House passed a bill last week that would reorganize NPPD as a new operational agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (Defense Daily, Dec. 12).

The bill also establishes a “Hack the Election” bug bounty program for independent technical experts to try their hand at infiltrating voting systems, similar to the DoD’s “Hack the Pentagon” program.

“Our bipartisan legislation will strengthen the integrity of our election process by ensuring that local voting officials have the information and financial resources they need to secure their voting systems. These safeguards will protect and bolster public confidence in our elections,” Collins said in a statement.