Don’t wait on election security

Amid the furor over this month’s Helsinki summit between President Trump and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, one N.C. congressman sees potential for at least one positive outcome.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-11th District, hopes post-summit publicity will prompt his congressional colleagues to act on a critical issue.

“This underscores what we must do as Congress,” said Meadows, chairman of the U.S. House’s conservative Freedom Caucus. “We must pass legislation to make sure that actors like Russia or China or whomever it may be cannot interfere in our electoral process.”

While Trump’s comments generated headlines, Meadows attempted to shift the focus. “We’re critiquing a press conference today instead of critiquing our own inaction as it relates to that,” Meadows said the day after the summit. “I’ve got a bipartisan bill that has not seen the light of day. When are we going to get serious about the fact that cyberhacking is not only a current problem, but it is a future problem that will undermine our democracy?”

Meadows’ bipartisan bill is called the Protecting the American Process for Election Results Act, House Resolution 3751. It has been stuck in committee since September. Eight of Meadows’ 11 co-sponsors are Democrats.

The PAPER Act directs the federal Election Assistance Commission to come up with recommendations for states to strengthen their election-related cybersecurity. States also would develop post-election auditing standards to ensure no outside manipulation of election results. Federal grants would help states pay for system and security updates.

The bill also would require voting machines purchased with federal tax dollars to have a paper trail for any votes cast electronically. Voters would be able to see the paper while casting ballots. The bill recommends a manual audit of a random sample of paper records after each federal election.

Meadows answered reporters’ Helsinki summit questions by emphasizing the PAPER Act. One journalist asked about Putin’s confirmation that he had preferred Trump to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

“I don’t care what Putin’s preference was,” Meadows said. “It’s incumbent upon us … that our electoral process makes sure that John or Sally on Main Street — that their preference is what counts and is pre-eminent. Until we do that, you’re always going to have foreign actors — whether it’s Putin or anybody else — trying to establish their influence on their favored candidate. We’ve just got to figure out a way to make sure that voters on Main Street have their voice heard.”

There’s no reason to wait on boosting election integrity, Meadows argued.

“I think we ought to be passing a bill … on how we stop interference from foreign entities in our election cycle,” he said. “If we’ve got an election coming up, why aren’t we dealing with that instead of messaging bills?

“Whether it’s naming post offices or anything else, I’ve never been one that believes that you just put forth bills that send a message. I think you go on offense. The only way that November will be good for Republicans is if we run through the finish line.”

The Freedom Caucus chairman challenged reporters to ask U.S. House leaders why they have yet to address the 10-month old PAPER Act.

“You need to go to the leadership press conference and ask them why they’re not doing it,” he said. “There are a plethora of ideas. It doesn’t have to be my idea. It could be anybody’s idea. But that needs to be a question that gets posed to the leadership and not to the Freedom Caucus. The last time I checked, we don’t set the floor agenda.”

Regardless of inaction on Capitol Hill, North Carolina is taking steps now to improve election security. Carolina Journal reported recently on plans to spend $10.9 million to “modernize election systems and tighten the security of voters’ information.”

Most of that money is heading toward an update of the Statewide Elections Information Management System, which handles tasks including voter registration, candidate filing, and election night reporting.

The system update represents the largest information technology project the state elections board has conducted in nearly two decades, board spokesman Patrick Gannon told Carolina Journal. “It will result in significant improvements to SEIMS functionality and the overall security of the state’s elections systems.”

Enhanced election security makes sense for North Carolina. It makes sense for the rest of the country, too. If the recent Trump/Putin summit kerfuffle attracts more attention to this issue, then the American electoral system could see long-term benefits.