West: Why is election security a partisan issue?
The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is an independent, bipartisan body responsible for key aspects of voter registration, election administration, and technical guidelines for voting systems. In the past few weeks, measures proposing an increase in its funding have come before both chambers of Congress.
Both times, they have failed.
In July, the House of Representatives voted down an increase of $380 million strictly along party lines. In the Senate late last week, a more modest $250 million was proposed; it still failed 50-47, with Tennessee’s Sen. Bob Corker the only Republican voting in favor.
The author of the Senate amendment, Connecticut Sen. Patrick Leahy, said after his measure’s failure that “The integrity of our elections, which are the foundation of our democracy, should not be a partisan issue.”
Sen. Leahy is right. So why do Republicans keep voting these measures down?
After all, we all know that the problem is real. Election infrastructure, including voter registration databases, were a target of Russian hackers in the 2016 election, per the intelligence community’s unanimous assessment. In addition, a variety of sources this summer — not least of all Russian hacking target and 2018 incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-Mo.) — have confirmed that the Russians are hard at work once again trying to influence the coming midterm elections.
In the aftermath of President Trump’s embarrassing presser with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki wherein he took Putin’s side over that of the U.S. intelligence community (and a subsequent week’s worth of damage control attempts by the White House), many Republicans rightly condoned the president’s remarks. They expressed their own agreement with the intelligence community that Russian active measures remain a real threat, and urged the president not to kowtow to Putin — or to invite him to Washington this fall, in the midst of a democratic process he was actively working to undermine.
But those words of criticism, while right and welcome, are meaningless absent any real action.
This problem of rhetoric without action was mirrored by the White House last week. The administration trotted out a host of national security leaders — including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, National Security Advisor John Bolton, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone, and even embattled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — all to confirm a “pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States” in the midterm elections. While their message was reaffirming and reassuring, it was disturbing to hear little in the way of policy specifics being undertaken to do something about the problem.
And of course, the president made matters worse not long after. Ranting and slurring at a campaign rally later that evening, he once again referred to the notion of election interference as “the Russia hoax.”
Clearly, with the executive branch ever-hobbled by its own leader’s ineffectiveness on this issue, it is up to Congress to act. Increasing funding for a simple commission that helps protect Americans’ right and ability to vote seems like it should be a pretty low bar for bipartisan cooperation.
The good news is that even with the EAC measures’ failures, there are a number of bipartisan bills to at least counter the Russia threat, including measures to impose new sanctions on Putin’s oligarch pals, prohibit the president from a unilateral withdrawal from NATO, and of course to protect Special Counsel Mueller from a politically-motivated firing.
All it takes for these common sense, national security-boosting efforts to move forward is a little bit of leadership from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — and a modicum of courage from the rest of the congressional Republicans, too.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at email@example.com.