Senate seeks to make sure that hacking election systems is a federal crime

Senators unanimously pass narrow legislation, but no broad action is expected

The Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would clarify that hacking election systems and machines is a federal crime. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would clarify that hacking election systems and machines is a federal crime. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 18, 2019 at 1:54pm

The Senate took another small step to improve election security Wednesday evening, even as there is no plan for a broader debate on the floor.

As the chamber was closing for the evening, senators passed by unanimous consent a bipartisan bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee designed to make sure that hacking election systems is actually a federal crime.

The bill would amend current law on computer hacking to specify that hacking a computer designated as part of a voting system or for the administration of a federal election is a crime.

The legislation was drafted in response to a Justice Department report released last summer that determined “should hacking of a voting machine occur, the government would not, in many conceivable circumstances, be able to use CFAA [The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act] to prosecute the hackers.”

Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was the lead Republican supporter of the legislation. He said in a statement that threats of such attacks go well beyond the Russian Federation.

“Seeking to undermine American democracy and our standing on the world stage, hostile nations like Russia, Iran, China and North Korea work every day to develop new cyber weapons to deploy against the United States. We should be particularly vigilant of our voting systems. This legislation provides the Department of Justice the ability to investigate and prosecute those who seek to manipulate elections systems equipment,” Graham said. “The House of Representatives should act quickly to pass this bill to help protect us from further attempts to interfere with the 2020 election.”

The bill was introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal. The Democrat from Connecticut is calling on the House to take up the legislation to send to President Donald Trump’s desk.

“Voting machines are a prime penetrable target, and laws remain woefully outdated. This bipartisan bill provides the Department of Justice with powerful tools to vigorously prosecute and stop malicious hackers,” Blumenthal said in a statement issued Thursday. “Its unanimous passage tells the world that securing our nation’s elections and cyber infrastructure is a bipartisan cause.”

Early last month, the Senate passed a separate narrow immigration policy bill that would deem inadmissible or deportable any foreign person who is planning, known, or suspected to have interfered in a U.S. election.

Broader legislative proposals designed to counter election interference efforts by Russia and other adversaries have failed to gain traction in the Senate, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt having said there is no intent to move broad election security legislation that would impose mandates for paper trails on state and local jurisdictions.

There has also been a lack of momentum for bipartisan legislation designed to provide a new round of sanctions authority in cases of future meddling of U.S. elections by Russia or others.

David Jordan contributed to this report.