U.S. spending bill to provide $380 million for election cyber security

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A massive federal government spending bill unveiled on Wednesday includes $380 million to help safeguard U.S. voting systems from cyber attacks, in what would be Congress’ first concrete steps to bolster election security since the 2016 presidential campaign was marred by allegations of Russian meddling.

The funding would provide states with grants to help them purchase more secure voting machines, conduct post-election audits and improve election cyber security training.

The spending bill also includes a $307 million increase over the Trump administration’s request for the FBI’s budget, which appropriators said would be used in part for counter-intelligence efforts to protect against Russia cyber attacks.

Americans vote in November in midterm elections, which U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly warned in recent weeks could be targeted by Russia or others seeking to disrupt the process.

It was not immediately clear when the funding would be made available or if it would be delivered in time to make a difference for states ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Republican Senator Richard Burr said on Wednesday the need for improved election security is “urgent,” but it already may be too late to make a difference for the 2020 presidential election.

The funding may be helpful for states that do not have a paper ballot backup count of votes cast on electronic machines, which security experts say is vital to ensure no tampering has taken place. Five states currently possess no paper backup, while another eight have some electoral districts without paper backups.

Testifying to lawmakers on Wednesday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said not having a verifiable audit in some states amounted to a “national security concern.”

The department said last year that 21 of the 50 states had experienced initial probing of their election systems from Russian hackers in 2016 and that a small number of networks were compromised. It said there is no evidence any votes were actually altered.

Federal appropriators also said the agency’s cyber unit would be given $26 million to provide assistance in securing election infrastructure.

State election officials repeatedly have said more federal funding would help them better protect systems from hackers. Despite inaction from Congress, nearly all states have taken at least some steps to purchase more secure equipment, expand the use of paper ballots, improve cyber training or seek federal assistance, according to groups that track election security.

Reporting by Dustin Volz and Richard Cowan; additional reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Bill Trott and Leslie Adler