AP Explains: Congress’ fight over election security bills
WASHINGTON (AP) — While House Democrats are haggling over whether to consider impeachment of President Donald Trump, Senate Democrats are focusing on a different angle in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report — securing future elections from foreign interference.
Democrats have tried to pass several election security bills in recent weeks only to have them blocked by Republicans, who say they are partisan or unnecessary. The federal government has stepped up its efforts to secure elections since Russians intervened in the 2016 presidential election, but Democrats say much more is needed, given ongoing threats from Russia and other countries.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has seethed in response to criticism over the issue, including some Democrats’ new moniker for him: “Moscow Mitch.” In an angry floor speech on Monday, he noted that Congress has already passed some bills on the subject, including ones that give money to the states to try to fix security problems.
McConnell also left the door open to additional action, saying “I’m sure all of us will be open to discussing further steps.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer predicted that Democrats’ “relentless pushing” will work. “We’re forcing his hand,” Schumer said.
The top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, said Thursday that he’s “much more optimistic than even 10 days ago” that the Senate will ultimately pass something on election security. Warner said he believes that in his home state, at least, the issue “has broken through” with voters more than other aspects of Mueller’s probe. But action will have to wait until at least September, with senators having scattered from Washington for the summer recess.
A look at various election security bills in the Senate:
REPORT FOREIGN INTERFERENCE
Legislation introduced by Warner would require campaigns to report to federal authorities if they have any contacts with foreign officials who are attempting to interfere in a presidential election.
Mueller’s report, issued in April, details a meeting between a Russian lawyer and members of the Trump campaign before which dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton had been promised. There’s no evidence that such material was provided at the meeting, and Mueller concluded that he wasn’t able to establish a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia. But Democrats say more safeguards are needed to ensure future campaigns don’t receive foreign help.
Republicans blocked Warner’s bill on the floor last month, but at least one in their ranks has signed on — Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a key swing vote on the intelligence panel.
“Russia’s efforts to interfere in our elections remain relentless,” Collins tweeted July 30. “I’m proud to join Sen. @MarkWarner in cosponsoring the bipartisan FIRE Act to require presidential candidates to immediately call the FBI if they are contacted by a foreign power attempting to target our elections.”
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut has a similar bill that has also been blocked by Republicans.
SECURE STATE ELECTION SYSTEMS
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic candidate for president, has introduced legislation to require states to use paper ballots, which would make election systems less vulnerable to hacking. It would also provide additional grants for states to make improvements, among other measures.
Homeland Security officials notified election officials in 21 states in 2017 that their systems had been targeted by Russia. Authorities have since said they believe all states were targeted to varying degrees. The federal government has ramped up its efforts to help states prevent such intrusions, and both sides say the relationship has greatly improved.
Republicans blocked passage of Klobuchar’s bill on the Senate floor in June. GOP critics of the bill say they fear creating too many new federal rules for states when they are already working with the government to make improvements.
Some Republicans supported similar legislation in the last Congress, including Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford and Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt. Lankford has said he’s still working with Klobuchar’s office on details of the legislation, but Blunt says he doesn’t think it’s needed, for now.
The House passed similar legislation to help states, but Republicans blocked that on the Senate floor as well.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas have sponsored a bill to protect personal electronic devices and accounts of senators and Senate staff from cyber threats. It would allow Senate officials to provide voluntary assistance to the senators.
That bipartisan legislation, which was also blocked on the Senate floor last month, came after former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said last year that Russian hackers had tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate her Senate computer network in 2017.
The senators said they proposed the legislation after Senate officials said they couldn’t use public funds to protect non-government devices and accounts.
Another bipartisan election security measure from Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would slap new sanctions on Russia if it tries to interfere in U.S. elections.
Rubio and Van Hollen pushed the legislation last session and reintroduced it this year, but it hasn’t yet moved.
McConnell hasn’t signaled opposition to the bill, but some lawmakers in the House and Senate have raised concerns it casts too wide a net and could cause problems for allied nations that do business with Russia.
MORE REGULATION OF ONLINE CAMPAIGN ADS
Legislation first introduced in 2017 by Warner and Klobuchar would extend some political ad rules that now apply to TV, radio and print to the internet. That bill has bipartisan support as well, with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham as a cosponsor.
The senators wrote the legislation in response to Russia’s broad social media disinformation campaign on Facebook and other sites. It would require social media companies to keep public files on election ads and meet some of the same disclaimer requirements as political broadcast and print advertising.
The social media companies say they have started to take those steps voluntarily, but the bill’s supporters say they should be required by law.
MAKING IT A CRIME FOR FOREIGN NATIONS TO INTERFERE
In arguing against too many new federal laws, Republicans point to two election security bills that have already passed the Senate.
Bills passed unanimously in June in July would make it a federal crime to hack any voting systems used in a federal election and to make it a violation of immigration law to interfere. That means violators would be barred from obtaining a visa to the United States.