paper ballots

Despite Urgent Warnings, Election Security Bills Appear Doomed

Former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller warned Russians remain intent on interfering in US elections and the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report indicating Russians may have touched election systems in all 50 states. Despite that, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked a vote on election security legislation that would set federal standards for electronic voting machines, calling it too partisan.

Former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller warned Russians remain intent on interfering in US elections and the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report indicating Russians may have touched election systems in all 50 states. Despite that, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked a vote on election security legislation that would set federal standards for electronic voting machines, calling it too partisan.

The former special prosecutor testified Russians remain intent on interfering in US elections. The House has passed bills addressing election security, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked them, claiming they are “so partisan.” What’s going on?

Election security, especially in the face of a new Senate committee report indicating Russian cyber-actors may have tried or actually penetrated election operations in all 50 states, seems like an odd issue to fall prey to partisanship. It’s even more odd when you look at what the latest House election security bill seeks to do. 

For federal elections, the House measure requires paper ballots, at least as a back-up, and prohibits voting systems connected to the internet. The legislation also authorizes $775 million in grants to help states secure their own voting systems with updated technology and cybersecurity safeguards and tightens standards for private companies providing election infrastructure.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act (SAFE Act) “closes dangerous gaps in our election systems and brings our security into the 21st century.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer added, “Nothing is more important to our democracy than ensuring every American can safely cast a ballot and have that vote counted accurately.” As partisan rhetoric goes, that’s pretty much apple pie.

McConnell wasn’t persuaded.

Senator Ron Wyden, citing Oregon’s experience with paper mail-in ballots, has pushed hard for a return to paper ballots, which are hard to hack. He has urged McConnell to protect democracy, not continue to expose it to foreign influences. He didn’t change McConnell’s mind, either.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked any vote on election security legislation, calling it “partisan.” His critics believe he has other reasons. {Photo Credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters}

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked any vote on election security legislation, calling it “partisan.” His critics believe he has other reasons. {Photo Credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters}

The Senate Intelligence Committee released an election security report last week that calls for greater collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security and state election officials. The report cites improvements in collaboration since the 2016 election, but identifies persistent gaps and vulnerabilities, as well as exposure from continuously advancing cyber-hacking techniques. 

Republicans in the House objected to the SAFE Act, branding it as a federal election mandate. McConnell hasn’t spelled out his objections beyond calling the House Democratic legislation as partisan because of the party-line vote that approved it.

His unwillingness to bring election security legislation to the Senate floor has earned him the Twitter tag of “Moscow Mitch” and enraged critics who say he fears fair elections would help Democrats.

A more plausible reason for McConnell’s disinterest stems from his political ties to electronic voting machine vendors. In 2018, there were 14 states that used electronic voting systems with no paper trail. Currently, there are no federally mandated security standards for electronic voting systems. 

Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he hopes the panel’s report “will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that this threat remains urgent and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it.” 

Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford has proposed election security legislation, which he says stops short of “federalizing” elections and mandating federal certification of election machines. “There's no reason to play ‘mother may I’ with someone in Washington, DC, on how it works,” Lankford said in a Senate floor speech. “States need to run their elections. But the federal government should always be there to assist states, to say, ‘If you have a question, if you want a second opinion, we can offer that.’”

If McConnell brought Lankford’s bill to the Senate floor, it would likely pass the GOP-controlled Senate on a mostly party-line vote, demonstrating that, contrary to warnings and urgent pleas for action, election security has taken its place in the line of bills doomed to go nowhere.