Election security push

Democrats not taking chances after Trump comments

Saturday, June 15, 2019

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WASHINGTON, DC, USA (AP) — Alarmed by President Donald Trump's willingness to accept foreign dirt on a political opponent, House Democrats are accelerating their efforts to strengthen election security ahead of the 2020 campaign.

Lawmakers had already been compiling a fresh package of Bills in the aftermath of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's findings in the Trump-Russia probe. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats are now pushing ahead with votes because it's part of “what the American people elected us to do”.

It remains to be seen if passage of Bills through the House will break the stalemate in Congress over what to do about election security. While Russia interfered in the presidential election more than two years ago, lawmakers have yet to act on legislation — and there is no shortage of proposals.

Democrats sped up their efforts after Trump suggested Wednesday in an interview with ABC News that he was open to accepting a foreign power's help in his 2020 campaign. He appeared to walk those comments back yesterday, telling Fox News that “of course” he would go to the FBI or the attorney general if a foreign power offered him dirt about an opponent.

Still, the controversy gave fresh energy to an issue that Democrats have prioritised since they took the House majority in January. Even though the nation's intelligence agencies said from early 2017 that it was clear Russia tried to influence the 2016 election in favour of Trump, Republicans who led both chambers did not move comprehensive legislation to address the issue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declined to hold a vote on a Senate election security Bill that has bipartisan support.

The House Bills seek to secure state election systems, put stricter limits on foreign election interference, and provide more oversight of the executive branch, according to aides familiar with the legislation. The House could vote as soon as next week on the first Bill in the package, a series of measures to improve state election systems with paper ballots, audits and funding of grants to states.

Rep John Sarbanes, D-Md, among those leading the effort, said Trump's attitude toward foreign interference was “breathtaking” and, he believes, the president is taking the country in the “opposite direction of where the public wants to go, which is to feel more confident, not less confident” in the vote.

“People should be concerned that we're going to see another round of attempts to attack our democracy of the kind we saw in '16,” Sarbanes said in an interview. He said Special Counsel Mueller's report, which extensively detailed the Russian interference, flashed a “neon sign” that Russia was “coming again”.

Congress has struggled to improve election security in the aftermath of the 2016 election, tangled by partisan fighting and the intricacies of state-run election systems. The bipartisan Senate effort ahead of the 2018 midterm election was blocked by resistance from GOP leadership, taking cues from a White House neutral to the effort. At the start of the new Congress this year House Democrats passed a sweeping package of election and ethics reforms, but Senate Republicans rejected much of the package as overreach.

“What is it about Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in Congress that they do not want to respond to what is so popular across the board in our country?” Pelosi said this week.

Republican Sen James Lankford of Oklahoma said last month that talks had resumed on bipartisan Senate legislation that stalled last year. The White House and some Republicans said at the time that the Bill, which would encourage back-up paper ballots and bolstered election audits, could exert too much federal control over the states. McConnell declined to bring it for a vote last fall, and there are no signs he has changed his mind.

Virginia Sen Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, tried to pass a separate Bill on the Senate floor Thursday that would require campaigns to report any contacts from foreign nationals intending to interfere in a presidential election. But Republican Sen Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee objected, blocking it from passage.

Trump appeared to praise Blackburn for the move on Twitter yesterday, tweeting that Democrats “continue to look for a do-over on the Mueller Report”.

Warner tweeted back: “The president is making it quite clear that he wants the Senate GOP to obstruct any attempt to prevent future foreign election interference.”

House Democrats hope to move their election security Bills in the coming weeks, ahead of the month-long August recess. In addition to the legislation to improve state election systems, the package will include legislation by New Jersey Rep Tom Malinowski to bar campaigns from sharing private materials with foreign governments. Similar to Warner's legislation, it would require reporting to authorities if campaigns are approached by foreign actors with offers of assistance that involve illegal activity, such as hacking.

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