Last week’s Democratic debates were an important marker on the road to the 2020 election. They were also a reminder that time is quickly running out for Congress to enact legislation that will safeguard against foreign actors’ attempts to manipulate the results.
There is ample evidence of Russian agents’ multipronged attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. U.S. intelligence agencies warn that such interference continues with the FBI director calling it a “significant counterintelligence threat.” And in a recent Associated Press poll, more than half of Americans said there they were very concerned about foreign meddling in U.S. elections.
Much of the blame for congressional inaction on this issue has been rightly laid at the feet of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has refused to allow elections security bills to see the light of day.
At the same time, Congress’ shotgun approach is not helping. Lawmakers must focus their attention on bipartisan solutions and stop wasting time on bills doomed to fail along party lines.
House Democrats’ first major bill of the session — the For the People Act of 2019 — took a broad swipe at election security and integrity, voter access, campaign finance and ethics. The bill, which McConnell dismissed as “basically the far left’s entire Christmas wish list,” failed to earn the support of a single Republican, rendering McConnell’s opposition a moot point. Late last week, they passed the Securing America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act, which would establish grants and set guidelines for election security. Only one Republican member voted for the bill.
The president’s gleeful disregard for conventional norms has inspired a deluge of legislative proposals addressing previously unthinkable possibilities, from mandatory reporting of foreign nationals’ attempts to influence elections to requiring presidential and vice-presidential candidates to release their tax returns. Each of these are issues worthy of consideration and debate.
But elections security is its own, urgent matter that demands laser-focused, bipartisan solution-seeking. In our divided and rancorous Congress, kitchen-sink bills simply will not fly. Even common-sense protections such as communication between law enforcement and elections officials, paper ballot backups and audits are proving a difficult sell, given ideological differences over spending and state rights.
Congress must devote its full attention to this yeoman’s work of negotiating these details — and soon. Leave the news conferences and politicking for another issue, another time.