Meeting the Threat, Securing our Elections
Lisa Gilbert, Vice President of Legislative Affairs, Public Citizen
This week, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are taking essential steps to protect our democracy by voting on an election security bill, the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act(SAFE), in addition to legislation that would appropriate money to the states to secure our elections in 2020. The need for these bills to pass and be signed is crystal clear following Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which put us face to face with the scope of our election security challenge.
The special counsel reported back to the American people the “sweeping and systematic fashion” in which Russia interfered in the 2016 elections and highlighted the breadth and complexity of the U.S. voting infrastructure that needs protecting.
Mueller’s report showed that there are numerous voting systems, websites and databases through which foreign adversaries could try to cause chaos and undermine trust in our system of democratic elections. And there’s a lot to do to grapple with this issue before Americans cast their ballots in 2020.
Mueller noted in his report that beyond the targeting of the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign, Russian hackers also went after election technology firms and the local officials who administer our elections, who often don’t have the resources to maintain and upgrade voting systems.
The threats are numerous and real. It is incumbent upon every member of Congress to do their part as a matter of national security. Congress must partner with states and local governments, funding needed security steps and providing direction to ensure the 2020 elections are protected. The SAFE Act that will move to the floor this week, includes provisions that mandate that paper ballots be verified, authorizes grant money to update voting equipment and sustained support for security improvements, and establishes cybersecurity requirements for elections. In addition, the appropriations legislation that also will get a vote includes $600 million for election security to states and localities.
These funds are sorely needed. In recent congressional testimony, Election Assistance Commission Chairwoman Christy McCormick estimated that states will have spent 85% of the funds received last year prior to the presidential election, leaving a huge void.
At least seven states are working to replace old voting machines before the 2020 presidential election, while other states, like Kentucky and Indiana, the home states of the vice president and the Senate majority leader, wanted to replace voting equipment but the federal money that was provided wasn’t enough. Following the Mueller report, we must do better to give states the resources they need.
In addition to this week’s critical votes, Congress also must deal with foreign interference by closing campaign finance loopholes, clarifying the requirements on social media platforms to keep foreign actors from using social media streams to influence our voters through legislation like the Honest Ads Act and passing rule-of-law reforms to ensure that foreign interference won’t be welcomed by future administrations. (Note President Donald Trump’s comments to George Stephanopoulos that he might not report to the FBI any election help offered by a foreign source in the 2020 election cycle.)
The need for robust real change to protect our democracy is obvious, and the House’s push to secure our elections is the first step. Making these bills law is the responsible thing to do, and if passed in the House, they must be moved by Mitch McConnell in the Senate and signed by the president.
Our democracy is dependent on flourishing, participatory systems, protecting it when threatened is a core mandate of all elected officials. We hope they meet this threat head on.