Democrats press for action on election security
Maggie Miller, The Hill
Congressional Democrats renewed their call for election security legislation during a national day of action on Tuesday, as a Senate Appropriations subcommittee left out funding for it in its annual spending bill.
Democrats including Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) argued on Tuesday that time is running out to implement election security upgrades such as replacing outdated voting machines with just over a year left prior to the 2020 elections.
“Congress has essentially until the end of October to pass legislation that can still make an impact in time for the general election in 2020, so we have to move, and the fact is that the window may have already closed to secure some of the 2020 primaries,” Wyden, who has sponsored multiple election security bills, told reporters during a press conference.
Blumenthal added that he is “deeply alarmed” about the small amount of time remaining before the 2020 elections.
“The simple mechanics of purchasing new machines, training personnel, assuring that systems are implemented absolutely takes time, and the urgency of the effort now, and the reason we are having this call and speaking out — we are, in effect, every day trying to advance this agenda and sound the alarm to the American people that elections are just like any other critical infrastructure,” Blumenthal said.
Wyden and Blumenthal’s comments were made on the same day that election security advocates around the country held around 40 gatherings outside of the offices of members of Congress to promote taking action on election security. Activists gathered outside the district offices of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, including Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and John Thune (R-S.D.).
Klobuchar, Blumenthal, and Wyden have championed legislation related to election security, with all three involved in a sustained push to pressure Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring bills on the topic to the Senate floor for a vote.
Their calls for movement on the legislation have been intensified by the findings of the report by former special counsel Robert Mueller, which found that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections.
Mueller also testified in July that he expected the Russians to attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections.
One of the bills Democrats have called for a Senate vote on is H.R. 1, a sweeping voting rights and election security bill passed by the House along party lines in March. Republicans have blocked this bill, with McConnell labeling it the “Democrat Politician Protection Act” due to non-election security-related language.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the primary sponsor of the bill in the House, said during the same press conference on Tuesday that in blocking H.R. 1, McConnell “is standing in the way with his arms folded at the gates of democracy and saying to the American public, you shall not pass.”
The Senate has passed legislation this year that would deny U.S. visas to individuals who have interfered or attempted to interfere in U.S. federal elections and to make it a federal crime to hack voting systems. Congress also appropriated $380 million to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) last year to distribute to states to bolster election security efforts.
These funds were a central topic of debate on Tuesday as the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government met to mark up the annual fiscal 2020 financial services and general government spending bill.
The House version of the legislation included $600 million for election security efforts. However, Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, confirmed during the markup that no election security funds were included in the initial Senate version of this bill.
This is something Coons vowed to fight when the full committee considers the bill on Thursday, with Coons announcing that he intends to introduce an amendment to fund election security grants.
“While the 2018 election went very well, and our election security was protected, and while I am a strong advocate for retaining state and local control of elections, I do think, given my own state’s experience and given the demonstrated action of some of our foreign adversaries in undermining elections, I do think additional investments are called for,” Coons said at the hearing.
The overall Democratic leadership of the committee will also push for these funds, with the committee's ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) telling The Hill on Tuesday that he also had an amendment he planned to introduce during the Thursday hearing to include election security funds.
However, Republicans are likely to put up a fight against these funds, citing the remaining money states have not yet spent from the $380 million designated to them last year, and concerns around federalizing elections.
“That’s the first step in federal control of elections,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters on Tuesday.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), the subcommittee chairman and someone who has been vocal in his objections to giving the states more election security funds this year, told reporters that “the short answer is, I’m going to vote 'no.' The long answer is, I’m going to vote 'hell no'” in regards to election security funding.
Republicans have a majority on the Senate Appropriations Committee by one individual, and at least one Republican on the committee may be open to the idea of giving the states funds, but only if states can prove the funds are needed.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla,), a key sponsor of election security legislation in the Senate, told The Hill that he plans to “quickly” pull information on how much of the $380 million has been spent by the states.
“The initial question is if we need to add more to that, and the states have got to show how they spent the previous money, what it was spent for, and where they’re at,” Lankford said. “Randomly pulling a number out of the air and saying let’s do something on election security by adding more money doesn’t solve the problem.”
EAC Chairwoman Christy McCormick told the Senate Rules Committee in May that around 29 percent of the funds had been spent by the states as of April 30, and that the EAC expects around 85 percent of the funds to be spent prior to the 2020 elections.
The majority of the funds have been used by states to replace outdated voting equipment and bolster cybersecurity, according to the EAC. The states have until 2023 to use the money.