With a little over a year until the 2020 elections — and growing concerns about foreign interference — the Senate will finally hold a briefing on election security on Wednesday.
This private briefing, something that Democrats have pushed for, for months, is expected to include Trump administration officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, according to The Hill. It takes place place amidst Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s ongoing opposition to the consideration of election security legislation.
While both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concerns about potential interference in 2020 by Russia and other foreign powers — and some Senate committees have even passed a bipartisan election security bill or two — GOP lawmakers have generally been more reluctant to take up any concrete measures. That’s partly because of how staunchly McConnell has pushed back.
“I think the majority leader just is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) said at a hearing earlier this year, adding that he didn’t see the point in considering any election security bills in committee if they simply weren’t going to go anywhere.
At the heart of McConnell’s concerns with these laws is both an ideological worry (that they would give the federal government too much control over state and local elections) — and a political one. Trump has previously discouraged any talk about election security, because he views it as connected with questions about the legitimacy of his 2016 victory. It’s possible lawmakers are refraining from additional focus on this subject in order to placate him.
“I’m open to considering legislation, but it has to be directed in a way that doesn’t undermine state and local control of elections. The Democrats ... would like to nationalize everything,” McConnell previously told Fox News. “They want the federal government to take over broad swaths of the election process because they think that would somehow benefit them.”
Although this briefing was viewed as victory for Democrats — who hope it will convince their Republican colleagues to consider passing additional legislation — Republican stances on taking further action on election security might not change much.
It’s unclear whether this briefing is going to change anything
While it’s notable that lawmakers are holding this briefing, it remains to be seen whether the information shared as part of the meeting will be enough to spur further action.
The actions of the Republican-controlled Senate up until this point seem to suggest they might not. Despite repeated warnings from high-level government officials on the subject, McConnell, in particular, has seemed relatively immovable on the issue.
Beyond passing legislation that would prevent anyone convicted of election interference from obtaining a US visa, the Senate has allowed several bills addressing election security to fall by the wayside. The Protecting American Votes and Elections Act would require the use of paper ballots in American elections. The Defending the Integrity of Voting Systems Act would make hacking into an election a federal crime. And the Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections Act would require political campaigns to report contact from foreign governments to the FBI. None of them have been passed.
As a result of this inaction, the US Senate — which allocated $380 million in election security funds last year — is now effectively promoting a do-nothing approach to a subject that special counsel Robert Mueller and countless national security officials have raised as a serious threat that requires additional action. FBI Director Christopher Wray has gone so far as to call 2018 the “dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.”
Although US intelligence agencies and other bodies are doing what they can to bolster American defenses before the 2020 election, Republican leadership appears content to sit idly by despite numerous warnings about the need for more resources to prevent potential breaches.
McConnell’s unwillingness to tackle election security isn’t just sending a political message, it could have major consequences. Democrats are hoping an in-depth briefing about the risks the US faces might push Republicans to change course.