Securing American elections against foreign interference — including by Russian computer hackers breaking into U.S. election infrastructure — ought to be an urgent and bipartisan priority. But thanks to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate is about to leave Washington without acting on proposals to make it harder for Russia and other foreign actors to meddle.
Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who took the threat of foreign election meddling more seriously than the president who appointed him, has announced that he is resigning. President Trump proposes to replace him with Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), a Trump loyalist who attracted attention last week when he chastised former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for saying that he couldn’t exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice.
Taken together, these developments raise a concern that Washington won’t respond appropriately to a repetition — or escalation — of what Mueller described as a “sweeping and systematic” interference by Russia in the 2016 election. Mueller told the House Intelligence Committee last week that Russia was already interfering in the 2020 election “as we sit here.”
The day after Mueller testified, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report revealing that “the Russian government directed extensive activity, beginning in at least 2014 and carrying into at least 2017, against U.S. election infrastructure at the state and local level.” The report said that the Department of Homeland Security had concluded that election systems in all 50 states were probably probed. That kind of sabotage is a very serious concern, different from the dissemination of fake news that the Russians have long been accused of.
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The committee found no evidence that Russian attempts altered or erased any votes or registration information or even that an attempt was made to manipulate vote totals on election day in 2016. But it warned that, despite “considerable improvement” and Congress’ appropriation of $380 million in aid to the states, election systems are still vulnerable, especially those that use voting machines without a paper backup.
Last month the Democratic-controlled House approved the Securing America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act, which requires that states use “individual, durable, voter-verified” paper ballots” during federal elections. The House also has appropriated an additional $600 million in aid to the states to enhance election security, a recognition that more federal assistance is needed to help update archaic election systems.
But the Republican majority in the Senate continues to block action on the SAFE Act and other legislation inspired by Russia’s interference, including proposals to require candidates to report offers of information from foreign countries.
Protecting American elections against foreign (or other) sabotage shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Republican senators need to join with Democrats in voting to shore up vulnerable election systems. They also should refuse to confirm Ratcliffe unless he convincingly promises to follow Coats’ lead in treating past and potential foreign interference in U.S. elections as the threat it is.