Once Bipartisan, an Election Security Bill Collapses in Rancor

WASHINGTON — The purpose of the bill seemed unassailable: to ensure that state officials could protect their elections against the kind of hacking or interference that has clouded the 2016 campaign.

Although it started out backed by election integrity advocates and powerful senators from both parties, the Secure Elections Act has now all but collapsed.

Lawmakers modified one of the bill’s key provisions after hearing relentless complaints from state officials, prompting many of its advocates to pull their support. Then last week delivered what one of the bill’s co-sponsors called “the gut punch” — the formal meeting to draft the bill before sending it to the floor was abruptly postponed, and the White House offered a statement critical of the legislation later that same day.

No timetable has since been offered to reschedule it, and the election is two months away.

“The message it sends to elections officials is that there isn’t a sense of urgency or priority to get this done,” said Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state.

Introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, the bill would require states to use backup paper ballots and to implement postelection audits to ensure that voting systems were not compromised. It would also establish clear lines of communication between state election officials, the Department of Homeland Security and voting machine vendors.

Though frustrated by the delay, Mr. Lankford remained hopeful.

“People only start fighting over words and phrases and grammar in a bill when they actually think it’s going to pass,” Mr. Lankford said.

Ms. Klobuchar was more circumspect: “I’m optimistic only because no one has put a dagger in it yet.”

But while they repeat their mantra — “this isn’t a partisan issue, it’s a national security issue” — many of the divisions over the bill are now along partisan lines. Republicans say the measure oversteps Congress’s authority. Democrats, pointing to warnings from the nation’s top intelligence and cybersecurity officials, accuse Republicans of exhibiting indifference to attacks on American democracy.

Last week, the White House joined the argument, suggesting the bill violates states’ rights.

“We cannot support legislation with inappropriate mandates or that moves power or funding from the states to Washington for the planning and operation of elections,” spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said.

For now, the ebbing of Republican support has put the bill on ice. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said in a statement that “additional majority support” would be necessary for “a truly bipartisan election security bill to reach the floor.” He said that individual secretaries of state had expressed concerns, singling out Jim Condos, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Mr. Condos, Vermont’s Democratic secretary of state who twice testified to Congress in favor of the bill, said he was “thrown under the bus.”

“I had no intent of postponing the bill; I just was offering insight” after reporters asked him specific questions, Mr. Condos said. “I do support moving the bill forward, though I would hope there would be some necessary changes made.”

Of biggest concern, he said, is the requirement that states conduct a postelection audit after federal elections to ensure its integrity was not compromised.

The first version of the bill established a pilot program that would require state election officials to manually tally randomly selected ballots to ensure the reported outcome of the election is correct.

Some secretaries of state called that too onerous and costly, and the pilot program came out. In response, election integrity advocates yanked their support.

“The bill as it is, we now oppose it,” said Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital advocacy group. “We don’t think it reaches the minimum bar.”

But Republican election officials — and some Democrats — say that unless the bill allocates additional funding to states, it is essentially an unfunded mandate.

“You have local jurisdictions that are cash strapped. Now you’re going to add more requirements to process ballots,” said Kim Wyman, Washington state’s chief election official. “Congress adds these requirements, but they’ve got to provide funding or you’re setting them up to fail.”

Ms. Klobuchar said she hopes to introduce an amendment that would provide state election officials with additional funding.

But Mr. Lankford is not on board. He said Congress already disbursed $380 million to the states for the purpose of election improvements.

“While I’m sure states would love to have more money,” he said, “this is not some new mandate on states. They already have the responsibility to be able to manage it in a way that’s reliable and trustworthy.”

Eric Rosenbach, a former assistant secretary of defense for global security who has been following the legislation, is optimistic that the bill will pass, saying that some of the political tensions surrounding the bill may ease after the midterm elections in November.

Still, Mr. Rosenbach said, “I’m just nervous the price of not having the perfect bill will mean we don’t have anything. It seems like a pretty heavy price to pay.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: Once-Bipartisan Bill To Safeguard Elections Falls After ‘Gut Punch’. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe