The bill introduced Tuesday is specifically designed to ensure the integrity of and bolster confidence in the federal vote count.
It would require state and local governments to take two steps to ensure that votes are counted correctly. Under the legislation, states would have to use voting systems that use voter-verified paper ballots that could be audited in the event a result is called into question.
State and local officials would also be required to implement what are known as “risk-limiting audits” — a method that verifies election outcomes by comparing a random sample of paper ballots with their corresponding digital versions — for all federal elections.
Both steps have been endorsed by cybersecurity professionals as a way to ensure confidence in the vote count. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has also recommended that states transition to voting systems that generate paper backups that can be audited.
“Congress must act immediately to protect our democracy from cyberattacks. Any failure to secure our elections amounts to disenfranchising American voters,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.
“For Americans to have confidence that their votes count, and that election results are free and fair, there absolutely have to be paper ballots and mandatory audits for each and every federal election,” Wyden said.
Currently, five states use paperless voting machines that do not produce a paper backup, and many more have mixed voting infrastructure with some localities using paperless systems. Twenty-two states do not legally require post-election audits.
Revelations of Russian meddling have triggered fears about the possibility of future interference efforts that could cast doubt on the outcome of U.S. elections.
The Department of Homeland Security revealed last year that Russian hackers targeted election-related digital systems, such as voter registration databases and websites, in 21 states as part of a broader plot to interfere in the 2016 vote. In a small number of cases, hackers succeeded in breaking into systems.
Officials maintain that none of the targeted systems were involved in actual vote counting, and that there is no evidence any votes were changed.
Some security experts say it would be difficult to wage a hacking campaign against voting machines, which are not connected to the internet and are typically stored in secure facilities. Experts say it’s unlikely that hackers could actually have a material impact on the vote. Others, however, are more skeptical of the security of voting systems.
“Why would we give foreign adversaries the opportunity to hack into our voting systems when we have better, more secure alternatives?” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), one of the bill’s sponsors, said Tuesday. He added that the legislation represents a “critical step toward protecting one of our nation’s most precious assets: the integrity of our democracy.”
There have been other attempts in Congress to address election security at the state level. A bipartisan group of senators is currently trying to attach election security legislation to a must-pass defense policy bill moving through the upper chamber.
And Congress already sent $380 million to states to upgrade old voting equipment and shore up cybersecurity as part of a massive funding package approved in March.