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Divided Congress can’t agree on fix for ‘dangerous’ Russian election meddling

The Mueller investigation into possible Russia - Trump campaign connection

Robert Mueller is special counsel for the Department of Justice. He oversees the investigation into Russia's possible connections to the 2016 election and Trump campaign.
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Robert Mueller is special counsel for the Department of Justice. He oversees the investigation into Russia's possible connections to the 2016 election and Trump campaign.

Despite clear and compelling evidence of a Russian plot to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, partisanship has all but killed any chance that Congress will pass legislation to shore up election security before voters cast their ballots next year.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress largely agree with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s finding that Russia tried to meddle in U.S. democracy — and that foreign interference remains a serious threat.

“Russia’s ongoing efforts to interfere with our democracy are dangerous and disturbing,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, after Mueller finalized his investigation last month.

But McConnell has made it clear that he’s unlikely to allow the Senate to vote on any election-related legislation for the foreseeable future.

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee that has jurisdiction over election security legislation, blames House Democrats for McConnell’s hardline stance. Blunt said Democrats overreached in January when they passed H.R. 1, a sweeping measure focused on voting rights, campaign finance, and government ethics.

The 570-page bill would require states to use paper ballots and establish cybersecurity standards. It would fund grants for states to upgrade voting equipment, train local election officials in cybersecurity, and conduct post-election audits. It also would make registration easier, restore voting rights to ex-felons and designate Election Day a federal holiday.

David Popp, a spokesman for McConnell, said he could provide “no guidance” on whether an election security bill authored by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma might be able to gain traction in the Senate. But Blunt said McConnell will not even bring a GOP-led election bill to the floor for fear Democrats might try to amend it.

“The House action on election legislation has actually made it even less likely that that bill could possibly be on the Senate floor,” Blunt said in an interview. “Their (H.R. 1) bill was a combination of everything that Democrats have wanted to do over the past 20 years all put into one big bill ... That bill’s just not going to go to the floor. Neither is any other bill that opens the door to these issues. Leader gets to decide that and he has made it clear.”

That’s a major setback for the bipartisan bill authored by Lankford with Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kamala Harris of California, both 2020 presidential candidates. The Secure Elections Act would streamline cybersecurity information-sharing between federal intelligence agencies and state election authorities and provide security clearances to state election officials. It also makes grants eligible to local jurisdictions.

The legislation has drawn support from across the political spectrum, including GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina., Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine and Harris, a liberal Democrat.

Given McConnell’s opposition, however, Blunt told The Star he does not plan to take up Lankford and Klobuchar’s bill in the Rules Committee for hearings or a vote.

”I don’t see any reason in this case to mark up a bill that can’t possibly be voted on on the the floor,” he said.

Blunt, who served as Missouri’s top election official before running for Congress, does plan to hold an oversight hearing on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, likely in May. The focus will be on lines of communication between local and federal officials, as well cybersecurity.

“That will be a hearing with the people whose job it is to do those things, rather than have a hearing on legislation that’s not going to the floor,” he said.

Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee, wasn’t happy with the news that GOP leadership isn’t planning to move forward with the election security bill she’s cosponsoring with Lankford.

“They’d better move forward,” said Klobuchar. “And wait ‘til they see that report (from Mueller) and they’ll see why.”

There is no evidence that Russian hackers or spies managed to change a single vote in 2016. But Mueller’s indictments of Russian actors describe alleged efforts to hack a U.S. voting software company. The Department of Homeland Security also reported that Russian agents tried to penetrate 21 state election systems in 2016.

Blunt and other Republican lawmakers in Congress have said they agree with U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment that the Russian government directed hacks of U.S. political organizations in an effort to interfere with the election process.

That assessment also noted that some states noticed scanning and probing of their election-related systems, “which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned Congress in January that foreign adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran are likely already planning ways to disrupt next year’s presidential election through “online influence operations” on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

They also “may seek to use cyber means to directly manipulate or disrupt election systems—such as by tampering with voter registration or disrupting the vote tallying process—either to alter data or to call into question our voting process,” he wrote in a threat assessment submitted to the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence.

Last year, after then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned that the lack of paper trails in some states was a national security concern, Congress approved $380 million in federal funds to upgrade election systems and boost cybersecurity.

Since then, the political landscape has changed. Democrats won control of the House, and with it, more power to shape federal election policy .

“It’s beyond me that Congress can’t have hearings on developing good policy around what should be and has been a bipartisan response to protecting our elections,” said Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “They’ve done it before and they’ve done it again. It’s going to take a bipartisan response.”

States cannot protect elections on their own, Weil said.

“We don’t ask the Maryland State Guard to defend against a foreign army,” he said. “There’s a need for the federal government to be involved when it comes to the bad intentions of foreign bad actors … This needs to be viewed more as national infrastructure.”

McConnell’s approach is puzzling, said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who specializes in elections and runs the United States Election Project, a resource on election laws and statistics.

As Democrats gear up to run on election security and voting rights as part of their 2020 platform, McConnell could neutralize the issue by offering a GOP alternative to H.R. 1 that includes some of the election reforms Republicans want, McDonald said.

”Republicans are being short-sighted,” he said.

For his part, Lankford said he and Klobuchar will continue to partner on their election security bill in the Senate. They are working with the White House counsel to agree on language the administration can accept — and that President Donald Trump would sign.

The Oklahoma Republican has not talked to McConnell or Blunt about concerns with the legislation, and was surprised by Blunt’s clear statement that no such bill will even get a hearing.

Like Blunt, Lankford blames House Democrats for creating an environment that will make it hard to pass any election changes in the Senate.

“It’s made the environment so toxic,” Lankford said.

He called H.R. 1 a “wish list” for federal takeover of elections and complained that tax dollars would be used to pay for the campaigns of candidates taxpayers philosophically oppose.

McConnell’s hostility toward H.R. 1 is intense. He has taken to the Senate floor at least eight times since late January to rail against H.R. 1. He’s dubbed it the “Democrat Politician Protection Act” and vowed to prevent it from coming law, casting it as a violation of states’ rights.

He called it a “one-sided power grab” and warned it would federalize elections.

“Hundreds of pages are dedicated to telling states how to run their elections, from when and where they must take place, to the procedures they have to follow, to the machines they have to use,” he said.

Even in the unlikely event that McConnell relented and allowed a Senate vote on Lankford’s election security bill, the Democrat-led House likely would give it a lukewarm reception.

The House is moving instead take up a more ambitious piece of legislation authored by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security and served as co-Chair of a Task Force on Election Security last year.

Thompson’s Elections Security Act would require paper ballots and set standards for election technology vendors. It also would provide an initial $1 billion in federal funding for states to replace outdated voting equipment and to cover the costs of hiring IT staff, training election officials in cybersecurity, and performing risk assessments of election systems.

In addition to the initial influx of $1 billion, the bill would create dedicated pools of money to help states maintain election security into the future.

Some of the bills provisions were included in H.R. 1.

Thompson hopes to reintroduce his legislation in the coming weeks or months. He believes the bill does more than Lankford’s and has funding behind it to make it effective.

“There is no reason that election security should be a partisan issue,” Thompson said in a statement.

“All sides have a clear vested interest in ensuring our elections are secure and free from foreign influence,” he said. “Republicans often speak of the need to further secure our elections, now they must turn those words into action or the American people will realize they are not acting in good faith.”

Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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Lindsay Wise is an investigative reporter for McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. Previously, Lindsay worked for six years as the Washington correspondent for McClatchy’s Kansas City Star. Before joining McClatchy in 2012, she worked as a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, where she specialized in coverage of veterans and military issues as well as the city’s Arab and Muslim communities.
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