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Election Security Measures Face a One-Man Roadblock: Mitch McConnell

WASHINGTON — A raft of legislation to better secure United States election systems after what the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, called a “sweeping and systematic” Russian attack in 2016 is running into a one-man roadblock in the form of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The bills include a Democratic measure that would send more than $1 billion to state and local governments to tighten election security, but would also demand a national strategy to protect American democratic institutions against cyberattacks and require that states spend federal funds only on federally certified “election infrastructure vendors.” A bipartisan measure in both chambers would require internet companies like Facebook to disclose the purchasers of political ads.

Another bipartisan Senate proposal would codify cyberinformation-sharing initiatives between federal intelligence services and state election officials, speed up the granting of security clearances to state officials and provide federal incentives for states to adopt paper ballots.

But even bipartisan coalitions have begun to crumble in the face of the majority leader’s blockade. Mr. McConnell, long the Senate’s leading ideological opponent to federal regulation of elections, has told colleagues in recent months that he has no plans to consider stand-alone legislation on the matter this term, despite clamoring from members of his own conference and the growing pressure from Democrats who also sense a political advantage in trying to make the Republican response to Russia’s election attack look anemic.

Mr. McConnell has long been an implacable foe of legislation that mandates disclosure or limits on political donors. Critics charge that he may have another reason to stay on the sidelines: not wanting to enrage President Trump, who views almost any talk of Russia’s success as questioning the legitimacy of his 2016 victory.

“No, I don’t think there is any likelihood that we are going to move a bill that federalizes more of the election process,” Senator Roy Blunt, a member of Republican leadership and a former top elections official in his home state, Missouri, said on Wednesday. “Our focus will be on being sure that we are supporting the state and local governments that have run and will be the best people to run elections.”

As Mr. McConnell and his allies see it, the federal government is already doing enough — through executive branch initiatives, a 2017 package of Russia sanctions, $380 million in grants Congress allocated to states last year — to satisfy that obligation. A spokesman for Mr. McConnell, Doug Andres, declined to comment.

Advocates for congressional action in both parties are not giving up.

“Leader McConnell would just like the issue to go away,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said this week in an interview. “We’re not going to let that happen.”

Mr. Schumer and others point to continued warnings from the American law enforcement and intelligence officials monitoring Russia and other foreign adversaries — including Mr. Mueller — who say the threat against the American political process may only be growing. Adding to concerns are reports that Mr. Trump’s sensitivity around Russia might be hindering the executive branch’s response and surveys that show more than a dozen states still do not have auditable paper-ballot backup systems. Dozens more say they lack the funds to replace aging and potentially vulnerable election technology.

“We have 8,000 different election jurisdictions, and the idea that all of them are going to have the resources, the knowledge, the skills and the ability to independently safeguard our system against foreign powers is just not realistic,” said Lawrence Norden, who has surveyed state election officials for the Brennan Center for Justice. “We need somebody to be leading on this. In some cases, individual states are. But given the threat, the idea that Congress is not going to have a role here for ideological purity, to me is insane.”

Democrats in the House majority are readying hearings and votes on election-related measures to try to force Mr. McConnell’s hand, party aides said. The House Intelligence Committee, one of the panels involved, announced Friday that it would hold a series of hearings on the Russian counterintelligence threat detailed by Mr. Mueller, including the need for additional legislation.

The votes will include one on the Election Security Act, a sweeping but partisan bill that proposes spending $1 billion in grants to state and local officials for replacing voting machines, hiring information technology staff and funding other security measures. But the bill also mandates the president develop a national strategy to fend off influence operations and disinformation campaigns like the ones Russia executed and promulgates new standards for vendors of election technology.

The House may also consider narrower, bipartisan bills Democrats hope could attract more Republican support, like the Honest Ads Act, which would force Facebook, Google and other internet companies to disclose who is purchasing political advertising, and a bill focused solely on getting states to adopt the use of backup paper ballots.

Daniel Savickas, who lobbies Congress on election-related issues for the conservative FreedomWorks, blasted the Senate majority leader for letting legislation languish: “Unfortunately, all Senator McConnell wants to do is judges these days,” he said.

FreedomWorks has advocated a more limited federal footprint, but Mr. Savickas said that “there is a role for Congress” to provide money for states to transition to paper ballot backups and to conduct “risk-limiting audits” after elections.

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, continues to push his Defending Elections From Threats by Establishing Redlines Act, written with Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, that would impose mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks an American election. Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Cory Gardner of Colorado, both Republicans, together with a handful of Democrats, are pressing for crippling new sanctions on Russia to increase the penalty for its past aggression.

None of that appears to be moving.

Nor does the Secure Elections Act, written by Senators James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, and Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, which codifies cyberinformation-sharing initiatives between federal intelligence services and state election officials, speeds up the process of granting state officials security clearances and provides incentives for states to adopt the use of paper ballots. The coalition behind it is fraying in the face of a reluctant White House and a balking Mr. McConnell.

“Many of the things we have in the Secure Elections Act, D.H.S. is already doing,” Mr. Lankford said in an interview, referring to the Department of Homeland Security. “We are trying to codify it, to say we can’t forget. We get to 2022, 2024, 2026 — no one can become complacent and think the Russians or the North Koreans or the Chinese are not going to try to engage in these kind of activities.”

The bill was abruptly pulled before a committee vote last year, and now Republicans and Democrats are struggling to agree to changes that Mr. Lankford has advanced to try to win White House support. Ms. Klobuchar is insistent that it take steps to either mandate or incentivize postelection audits and include additional money for states to buy new software and hardware.

“We are negotiating, but I am not going to agree to a significantly weakened bill,” Ms. Klobuchar said in an interview.

Lawmakers in both parties increasingly believe the best, albeit more limited, hope to get around Mr. McConnell could come through Congress’s annual appropriations process, where Democrats have more leverage and deals are more easily cut to satisfy both parties.

A spending bill passed last week by the relevant House subcommittee could serve as an opening position in negotiations. It contained $600 million for election security, with a stipulation that if states want access to the money, they must adopt “direct-recording electronic voting machines with a voting system which uses an individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballot which is marked by the voter by hand or through the use of a nontabulating ballot-marking device or system.”

The Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee is unlikely to be so generous or prescriptive, but the top Democrat on the panel, Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, said he intended to offer an amendment to provide for funding.

The two chambers would be forced to meet somewhere in the middle, but a deal would depend on House and Senate leaders being able to reach agreement on top-line spending numbers for the year.

Source: NYT

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