A group of Democratic senators raised alarms July 23 about the lack of congressional action on election security as the 2020 election approaches.
In a news conference, the senators pushed for a vote on legislation just months before the primary season for the presidential election and one day before Special Counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee about his report that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 election. The senators specifically targeted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has consistently blocked election security bills from receiving a vote on the Senate floor.
Vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said he and his colleagues want to pass legislation that requires ballots to have an auditable paper trail, political ads on social media to be labeled with their buyer, a mandate that campaigns notify the FBI if contacted by foreign governments offering “dirt” on opponents, and a requirement that Russia will be hit with immediate sanctions for any “attack” against the U.S. election.
“The truth is what happened in 2016 will happen in 2020,” Warner said. “There’s nothing Republican or Democrat or conservative or liberal about protecting the sanctity of our elections and sanctity of the ballot box. The only people that are stopping these commonsense measures from becoming law of the land are Leader McConnell and President Trump."
Congress has taken limited action on election security. In March 2018, Congress allocated $380 million for election security to the 50 states. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security told 21 states that hackers targeted their election systems in 2016. Illinois had it the worst of any state, with a data breach that involved the information of 76,000 registered voters.
“It could happen again in virtually any state in the union,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Durbin pointed to this incident while calling on McConnell to allow Senate action on election security, saying that McConnell is the reason that the Senate has done “nothing” with election security.
“Every major intelligence agency has confirmed the fact, as did Mr. Mueller in his report, that the Russian did everything they could think of to try to interfere in our 2016 election and are prepared to do the same next year in the 2020 election,” Durbin said, adding that the Russians have “very specific” plans to disrupt the 2020 election, based off intelligence briefings he has received.
“What are we doing about it? The answer is nothing," Durbin said. “The reason? Mitch McConnell.”
McConnell’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a current presidential candidate, asked FBI Director Christopher Wray at a July 23 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about several of the election security measures that Democrats highlighted at their news conference, including backup paper ballots and the labeling of political advertisements. Wray agreed that these were good ideas.
“I tend to believe that more information is better than less,” Wray said. “And I tend to believe that the American public will be better hardened against this threat with greater media literacy and resilience.”
According to a 2018 report for CQ Roll Call, 14 states don’t have paper ballot backups, including potential swing states Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas.
“Russia is well aware of which of those states don’t have backup paper ballots,” said Klobuchar, whose legislation on backup paper ballots and social media ads does have Republican co-sponsors despite facing an unclear path forward.
Senators also warned the threats to the 2020 election were not exclusive to the Russian government.
“We’re going to have a host of hostile foreign actors" attempting to interfere in our elections, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Senators pointed to the security efforts of their Democratic colleagues in the House, where Democrats hold the majority and have passed election security measures amounting to billions of dollars in grants to states, as examples of best practices that shouldn’t be stalling in the Senate.
“We’re talking about low-hanging fruit that if it came to the floor of the Senate, they would all pass, I think, with close to 80-plus votes,” Warner said.
Andrew Eversden covered all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. Beforehand, he reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.