Government & Politics

Has Congress already missed its chance to strengthen election security ahead of 2020?

Congress may have already missed its window to shore up state election systems against foreign cyber-attacks ahead of the 2020 election.

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony this week on his investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election has reignited calls for the passage of a bipartisan election security bill. But Republican Senate leaders have balked at approving any such measure prior to 2020.

GOP leadership said Mueller’s testimony did little to persuade them of the need for legislation. Moreover, one of the only GOP lawmakers pushing election security reforms on Capitol Hill said states have effectively run out of time to implement changes ahead of the next presidential election.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, told reporters Thursday that Congress should shift its focus to the 2022 mid-term election.

“I’ve had folks say we need to hurry and get money out the door so they can buy new systems, that’s not going to happen for 2020. There’s no way to do it for 2020 because you can’t buy the equipment, get it in, test it, evaluate it, train your volunteers on it when the first primary is six months away,” Lankford said.

“The discussion now is not about 2020. That’s already resolved. They’re not going to add new stuff unless it’s already currently in the pipeline. It’s really 2022 at this point.”

Bipartisan election security legislation that Lankford drafted with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat and presidential candidate, died in the Senate Rules Committee last year in the face of Republican opposition.

Lankford has promised for months that he and Klobuchar are working on changes to achieve a bipartisan consensus. But Sen. Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican and Rules chairman, said the legislation is unlikely to advance.

The country’s national security apparatus stepped up its monitoring of elections and communication with states after 2016, Blunt said. He added that many states have yet to spend federal dollars appropriated last year to upgrade and protect against cyber-attacks.

“Most everything that the bill anticipated should happen is happening,” Blunt said when asked about Lankford’s bill.

“When you talk to anybody that’s responsible for elections or for monitoring outside intervention and ask them, ‘Do you need any legislation you don’t have?’ Whether that’s the FBI or NSA or Homeland Security, the answer is always ‘No, we don’t need more legislation to do what needs to be done here and we are doing it,’ and I think it’s fair to say that Congress is paying attention,” Blunt said.

Lankford agreed that many provisions of his bill have already been enacted by federal agencies, but he said the legislation is still needed to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security continues to aggressively protect against attacks on election systems.

Blunt is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which released a report this week concluding that Russia sought to infiltrate voting systems in all 50 states. The report found no votes were changed as a result of the hacking attempts.

Mueller made clear during his testimony that Russia continues its efforts to interfere. “They’re doing it as we sit here,” he said.

Blunt said that Mueller may be unaware of some of the work being done by federal agencies.

“We are not ignoring this. We were much more engaged in this fight in ‘18 than we were in ‘16 and we’ll be more engaged in ‘20 than we were in ‘18,” he said.

House Democrats last month passed legislation that would require paper ballots and authorize federal grants for replacement of existing voting systems, a move meant to mitigate the threat from hacking.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, attempted to pull this legislation out of the Senate Rules Committee and pass it by unanimous consent Thursday. He offered a letter from 22 Democratic state attorneys general asking for more help on election security as evidence that states want more federal support.

“Mueller’s testimony should be a wakeup call to every American—Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative—that the integrity of our elections is at stake, to be manipulated by a foreign power,” Schumer said.

But the attempt to pass the bill was largely symbolic and quickly blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

McConnell also blocked a proposal from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, requiring campaigns to report any offers of foreign assistance to the FBI.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, lambasted Senate Republicans for their resistance.

“It’s extremely frustrating. This is not a political issue for me. This is an issue about the survival of the republic. And we are going to be judged by future generations very harshly for allowing the Russians to essentially lob guided missiles into the United States in the form of bots to disrupt and damage our election process. It actually hurts me,” Cleaver said.

Cleaver has so far resisted joining House Democrats who are calling for President Donald Trump’s impeachment in the wake of Mueller’s report, which investigated contact between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives and the president’s efforts to thwart federal investigators.

But when asked about election security, Cleaver did raise a hypothetical question about what the reaction would have been if similar allegations were made against Trump’s Democratic predecessor.

“If Barack Obama was playing toesies with Putin, we’d have an avalanche of criticism and articles of impeachment. And I’d be one. I’d be one. I don’t think you allow partisan politics to enter into any consideration when it comes to protecting our democracy and that’s the election process. And we just move on like nothing happened,” Cleaver said. “I think we’ve done our part in the House and we’ll continue to try to do things, but I don’t see the Senate moving.”

Former Florida Republican congressman and MSNBC Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough dubbed McConnell “Moscow Mitch” on Friday as he criticized him for blocking the election security bills.

“He is aiding and abetting Putin’s ongoing attempts to subvert U.S. democracy,” Scarborough charged. “Russia is trying to subvert U.S. democracy and Moscow Mitch won’t even let the Senate take a vote on it. That is un-American.”

Despite his opposition to the election security bills, McConnell has rejected the characterization that he’s soft on the issue. His office pointed to his support for the $380 million Congress approved last year to upgrade election systems.

Republicans in the Senate are also wary of bills they see as enabling a federal takeover of elections. Even Lankford, the strongest GOP voice on election security, said he has concerns that House Democrats have crossed into this territory.

“Elections are uniquely local and state. They’re not federal and that’s part of the strength of our system that no one entity can invade one vendor and get everything nationwide,” he said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters that national security agencies were successful in thwarting cases of attempted interference in the 2018 election, but that he could not provide more detail because disclosurewould undermine security efforts in the 2020 cycle.

He repeated the GOP claim that Democrats would use election security legislation as a way to pass other election reforms.

“If you can get Schumer to say ‘We will concentrate on making sure that we are on top of and will punish and be alert to and everything else, that you don’t want foreign countries interfering in your election,’ you’d get a chance at getting it done,” Grassley said.

“But when you got people that want national registration mixed up with stopping foreign interference in the election, then do they really want to stop foreign interference in the election?”

Lesley Clark contributed to this report.
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