After Mueller, what now for election security?

Democrats try to capitalize on former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's testimony to move the needle on election security legislation, but Republicans and the White House are still balking.

election hacking (znakki/Shutterstock.com)

Democrats in Congress are attempting to capitalize on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's July 24 testimony before two committees to move the needle on election security legislation, but so far, Republicans and the White House are still balking.

During his hearing with the House Intelligence Committee, he warned that Russia would almost certainly attempt to interfere in the 2020 election, and it would likely be joined by a host of other nations trying to follow its 2016blueprint. Shortly after Mueller wrapped up his testimony, Senate Democrats sought to force passage by unanimous consent of a pair of bills related to cybersecurity and election security.

The Senate Cybersecurity Protection Act introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) would have allowed the Senate Sergeant at Arms, the office that provides IT security for Senate apps and devices, to use appropriated dollars to extend those protections to the personal devices and accounts of lawmakers and selected staff members. The Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections (FIRE) Act sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) would make candidates legally responsible for telling the FBI about any contacts with foreign governments offering political assistance.

Both bills were blocked by an objection from Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.).

"I know a lot of people are focused on the politics right now, but the man who knows more about Russian election interference than just about anyone testified to Congress yesterday that Russia is attacking our elections 'as we sit here,'" Warner posted on Twitter the day after his bill was blocked. "We should do something about that."

Also on July 24, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) wrote to President Donald Trump to ask who at the White House was responsible for overseeing election security activities. According to the lawmakers, the representatives of intelligence and law enforcement agencies who briefed Congress on the threat earlier this month were similarly in the dark.

"When asked who at the White House was leading and coordinating interagency efforts to protect the 2020 elections from foreign interference, none of the briefers were immediately able to provide an answer," the two lawmakers wrote. "Moreover, it appeared that you have not received a recent joint briefing from the federal agencies responsible for election security. None of the briefers could confirm that you have ever received a comprehensive election security briefing in advance of the 2020 election."

Finally, Warner and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) -- who serve as vice chairman and chairman, respectively, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence -- released the first part of the committee's nearly three-year-long investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 elections. The report states that Russia "exploited the seams between federal authorities … and protection for the states" and that its activities "demand renewed attention to vulnerabilities in U.S. voting infrastructure."

Republicans in the House and Senate sent mixed messages in the immediate aftermath of Mueller's testimony about whether they were prepared to support legislation to tackle the issue. In a July 25 press conference, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and others said they would be open to supporting bipartisan election security legislation but claimed, falsely, that Democrats haven't held hearings or drafted legislation on the issue.

"Maybe tomorrow we should have a hearing on … making sure our election system is as safe as possible, but instead in Oversight, we're going to subpoena White House employees for all their emails," Jordan said. "When you're so focused on stopping the president, it's actually tough to do what's best for the country and, in your specific example, tough to do what's best for our election system. We would support moving ahead, having bipartisan focus on that, but the focus in Oversight and Judiciary seems to be totally on going after the president."

In fact, Democrats and Republicans have introduced numerous bills in the House and Senate over the past two years designed to fund the replacement of outdated and insecure voting machines, impose more rigorous post-election audits, increase transparency around foreign political ads online and address a host of other election-related security gaps identified by experts.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee, where Jordan is ranking member, held a hearing on election security in May and another on the security-heavy H.R. 1 bill, while the Homeland Security, Appropriations, Judiciary and other committees have held similar hearings on the topic since January.

In June, the House successfully passed the Securing America's Federal Elections (SAFE) Act, which would allocate $600 million in assistance to states and localities for upgrades to election cybersecurity and implement stronger paper and audit requirements. Just one Republican, Brian Mast (R-Fla.), voted in favor.

Meanwhile, the Senate has not taken up any election security legislation, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indicating that Mueller's testimony had not altered his view that such initiatives were "highly partisan" and "not a serious" effort on the part of Democrats, according to CNN.

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