White House blocks bill that would protect elections

WASHINGTON — A bill that would have significantly bolstered the nation’s defenses against electoral interference has been held up in the Senate at the behest of the White House, which opposed the proposed legislation, according to congressional sources.

The Secure Elections Act, introduced by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., in December 2017, had co-sponsorship from two of the Senate’s most prominent liberals, Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., as well as from conservative stalwart Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and consummate centrist Susan Collins, R-Me.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was set to conduct a markup of the bill on Wednesday morning in the Senate Rules Committee, which he chairs. The bill had widespread support, including from some of the committee’s Republican members, and was expected to come to a full Senate vote in October. But then the chairman’s mark, as the critical step is known, was canceled, and no explanation was given.

The White House. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
The White House. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

As it currently stands, the legislation would grant every state’s top election official security clearance to receive threat information. It would also formalize the practice of information-sharing between the federal government—in particular, the Department of Homeland Security—and states regarding threats to electoral infrastructure. A technical advisory board would establish best practices related to election cybersecurity. Perhaps most significantly, the law would mandate that every state conduct a statistically significant audit following a federal election. It would also incentivize the purchase of voting machines that leave a paper record of votes cast, as opposed to some all-electronic models that do not. This would signify a marked shift away from all-electronic voting, which was encouraged with the passage of the Help Americans Vote Act in 2002.

“Paper is not antiquated,” Lankford says. “It’s reliable.”

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 elections. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 elections. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

A paper record could prove effective against hackers if they tried to change the reporting of votes on the internet, as opposed to altering the votes themselves. Election officials needs to be able to say, “‘Nope, we can check this,’” as Lankford puts it. “Here’s the paper, here’s the machine, here’s our poll count.”

In a statement to Yahoo News, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters says that while the administration “appreciates Congress’s interest in election security, [the Department of Homeland Security] has all the statutory authority it needs to assist state and local officials to improve the security of existing election infrastructure.”

Under current law, DHS is already able to work with state and local authorities to protect elections, Walters wrote. If Congress pursues the Secure Elections Act, it should avoid duplicating “existing DHS efforts or the imposition of unnecessary requirements” and “not violate the principles of Federalism.”

“We cannot support legislation with inappropriate mandates or that moves power or funding from the states to Washington for the planning and operation of elections,” she added. However, the White House gave no specifics on what parts of the bill it objected to.

In a statement, Klobuchar thanked Blunt and Lankford, making clear that they were both allies in the effort. “They tried valiantly to salvage the votes for this bill on the Republican side,” Klobuchar’s statement said. “In the end we had every single Democrat on the committee committed to vote for the bill. Any changes that were recently made to the bill were made to accommodate the Republican leadership.”

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who sits on the Rules Committee, declined to say whether the majority leader, widely renowned on Capitol Hill for his backroom tactics, was involved in efforts to hobble the Secure Elections Act.

Blunt’s office would not comment on the record.

The Trump administration has been unable to settle on how elections should be secured, and whom they should be secured against. Despite consensus from the nation’s intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in 2016, President Trump has dismissed the threat, even as others in his administration have issued unambiguous warnings. Trump has instead asserted that millions voted fraudulently in New York and California for Hillary Clinton, thus giving her an edge of some 3 million votes in the 2016 presidential race. No evidence of statistically significant voter fraud has been uncovered.

Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Lankford, Klobuchar and others had worked for months to persuade their peers that electoral security is a nonpartisan issue. Supporters expected the legislation would make its way out of committee and become law, a rare bipartisan success story in the current Congress. As the chairman’s mark approached, they appeared to have won the votes they needed in the Senate Rule Committee.

Speaking to Yahoo News on Tuesday afternoon, Lankford seemed confident. He acknowledged that the federal government should not encroach on states’ administration of elections, but he also argued that states had to show more awareness of the high stakes involved. “Your election in Delaware affects the entire country,” he said. “Your election in Florida affects the entire country.”

In an earlier television appearance with Lankford, Harris rendered the issue of electoral security, and hacking by foreign powers, in stark terms: “We have to be prepared for wars without blood.”

But some apparently remained unconvinced. A staffer for a Republican senator on the Rules Committee described unease with “certain provisions in the Secure Elections Act” on the part of secretaries of state, who oversee elections. “In order for a truly bipartisan election security bill to reach the floor, additional majority support is necessary.”

The bill’s sponsors disputed the notion that it lacked support, noting that secretaries of state had had plenty of time to comment on the proposed legislation.

Lankford, a rising young Republican legislator, vowed to press on. “The issue of election cybersecurity is very important and more must be done now,” he said in a statement. “Congressional inaction is unacceptable.”


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