The Senate majority has blocked three bi-partisan election security bills, overriding concerns of the intelligence community and the bills’ sponsors that foreign interference in the upcoming presidential elections has already begun and will escalate.
Despite warnings from Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray that Russian hackers have already launched an information warfare campaign to disrupt the November 2020 elections, the Senate denied a request for unanimous consent for the three bills. Under Senate rules, a bill proposed by any one senator can pass without a floor vote if it moves with no objection from any other senator.
In the procedure on Tuesday, February 11, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) opposed requests for each bill. Blackburn invoked the state’s rights vs. federal government argument, accusing Democrats of trying to move the bills through the Senate aware that Republican lawmakers would block them. The states each control their own voting infrastructure.
“They are attempting to bypass this body’s Rules Committee on behalf of various bills that will seize control over elections from the states and take it from the states and where do they want to put it? They want it to rest in the hands of Washington, D.C. bureaucrats,” Blackburn said.
This Sounds Familiar
Last year, the Senate majority three times blocked election security bills. This time around the objection stopped the Securing America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act, introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-OR) that would require states to use paper ballots as backup and mandate post-election audits. The bill would also set federal election system cybersecurity standards.
A second bill proposed by Sen. Mark Warner, (D-VA), the Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections (FIRE) Act, would require political campaigns to report attempts by foreign entities to influence the elections. And, the Duty to Report Act, introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-CT), would mandate similar reporting requirements.
Last December, Blackburn objected to the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER Act), introduced by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), that called for new sanctions targeting Russia’s finance, defense and energy sectors should U.S. intelligence determine that Russia interfered in another federal election.
“America is 266 days away from the 2020 election, and Majority Leader [Sen. Mitch] McConnell, D-Ky., has yet to take any concrete steps to protect our …elections from hacking or foreign interference,” Wyden said.
Cybersecurity: Election Risks Remain High
The us vs. them mentality that pervades Congress bypasses much of the hard data presented by the cybersecurity and intelligence communities. For example, a report last October found that voting machines used by dozens of states can be easily and repeatedly hacked, potentially corrupting millions of votes in the 2020 election. Many of the voting systems’ vulnerabilities date to machines still in play from a decade ago.
Two months ago legislators granted $425 million in election funding to improve cybersecurity as part of a new federal spending deal. The appropriation is part of a massive $1.4 trillion appropriations package. It requires states to match 20 percent of the federal funds. Ultimately, state election officials will end up with about $500 million to improve their cybersecurity profile. House Democrats had originally hoped for $600 million, while McConnell indicated earlier this year he would support $250 million. In mid-2018, Congress allocated some $380 million to improve election security via grants to the states.