We Get Election Security or Dems Get Potent Campaign Issue

We Get Election Security or Dems Get Potent Campaign Issue
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
We Get Election Security or Dems Get Potent Campaign Issue
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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Perhaps it was his new moniker, Moscow Mitch -- which has enraged Mitch McConnell -- but the Senate majority leader is suddenly sounding open to election security measures he has long opposed. Democrats must push hard now to force Republicans to pass necessary safeguards or make them own what’s coming next year. 

Voters still don’t know enough about how vulnerable our 50-state systems remain. Just before McConnell blocked several election protection measures in the Senate last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose report said the Russian attack in 2016 was “sweeping and systemic,” told House members the threat is ongoing and “they’re doing it as we sit here.” The next day the Senate Intelligence Committee released findings showing the Russians probed voting systems in all 50 states in 2016 to assess their vulnerability. Two counties in the battleground state of Florida were hacked, Gov. Ron DeSantis has confirmed, though he has not revealed which ones. 

Nonetheless, McConnell blocked several bipartisan bills from consideration as “highly partisan” coming from “the same folks who spent two years hyping up a conspiracy theory about President Trump and Russia.” But within days he appeared to backtrack, telling CNN: “Maybe we can reach agreement on the kinds of things that would further improve the situation.” When asked why he would block legislation mandating the disclosure by any campaigns of foreign assistance, he continued, “We’re open to any suggestions people may have about how to improve the system.”

While this is non-committal, there are signs the political heat is getting to McConnell. Democrats, who the primary debates make clear don’t agree on health care policy, immigration or impeachment, should unite around election security as a central campaign message in 2020 should they fail to drag Republicans to the table.   

It will be challenging for McConnell to pass a bill, which would have to be signed into law by President Trump. Trump has made clear that he doesn’t take the threat to our elections seriously and thinks any talk of it is yet another partisan attempt to delegitimize his win against Hillary Clinton. Though he suddenly endorsed paper ballots this week in a tweet (as “old fashioned but true”), he dismissed the subject of election interference again on Thursday. Trump conceded he had not raised the subject with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a phone conversation about “wildfires in Siberia,” of all things. When asked about Mueller’s warning that Russia is  trying to interfere right now, Trump said to a reporter: “You don’t really believe this. Do you believe this?” Last month at the G20, of course, he joked about it when asked by the press, telling Putin with a laugh, “Don’t meddle in the election, please.” The president and his associates, including his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and son-in-law Jared Kushner, have all dismissed the threat in interviews, which has been interpreted as a welcome mat for foreign interference next year. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Trump stunned members of both parties when he said if someone had opposition research from a foreign government on his opponent, “I’d want to hear it.”

To their credit, GOP Sens. Marco Rubio, James Lankford, Tom Cotton, Mike Rounds and Bill Cassidy have all worked with Democrats on numerous bills. But while Republicans control the Senate floor and the committees, the push for new protections has come largely from minority party lawmakers, who can’t get anything voted on. 

Other Republicans say they have done enough, that Congress passed $380 million in grants to states last year to bolster voting defenses, that the Department of Homeland Security is coordinating new election defenses and that the federal government shouldn’t take over what is the responsibility of states to run elections. But experts have said states still don’t have the resources, equipment or protections to have adequately secured their systems next year. The Senate Intelligence report concluded: “Cyber security for electoral infrastructure at the state and local level was sorely lacking in 2016. ... Despite increased focus over the last three years, some of these vulnerabilities, including aging voting equipment, remain.” Our vulnerability lies in our 50 separate elections, and according to the report, “[s]tate election officials, who have primacy in running elections, were not sufficiently warned or prepared to handle an attack from a hostile nation-state actor.”

Legislative proposals include requirements for the use of federal funds by states on certified “election infrastructure vendors”; for campaigns to report offers of foreign campaign help to the FBI; for social media platforms like Facebook to publish who buys their political ads; and for incentives to use paper ballots and coordinate information sharing between state election officials and federal intelligence authorities.

“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,” Lawrence Norden, an expert at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the New York Times in June. “Given the threat, the idea that Congress is not going to have a role here for ideological purity, to me is insane.” 

While no votes were likely altered in 2016, disinformation on social media played a powerful role and the practice continues to proliferate. NBC reported last month that a study conducted at the University of Tennessee shows Russian influence may have impacted the outcome.  The study found “the weeks when Russian trolls were accumulating likes and retweets on Twitter, that activity reliably foreshadowed gains for Trump in opinion polls,” lead researcher Damian Ruck wrote. Democrats could pay a steep price if they don’t educate their own voters about what they’re seeing online, since Russia succeeded last time in deepening the divide not only between the two political parties but within the Democratic Party, mostly to depress the African American vote. 

Republicans should fulfill their duty to protect our free elections. But if they don’t, Democrats must champion this issue, which is far more important to the long-term health of a free nation than their squabbles over “Medicare for All.” If Trump loses next year and blames vulnerable balloting systems -- and there aren’t paper trails of counts that can be audited -- Republicans will regret their dereliction. 

It’s time Democrats tell the voters that.  

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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