Efforts to secure elections likely to gain ground in Democrat-controlled Congress

Efforts to boost election security are likely to gain traction in the new Congress, as Democrats who have pushed for election reform take control of both chambers and the White House.  

The aftermath of a contentious presidential race could also bolster Republican support for new measures to secure U.S. elections, though divisions still exist on how far each party is willing to go.

“I think there is room for legislation, I think there is room for that to get a vote, but it’s important for people to work together, it’s important for people to recognize that we can improve our democracy,” Benjamin Hovland, the chairman of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), told The Hill Monday. 

Election security has been a hotly debated topic on Capitol Hill in the years since the 2016 presidential election, when Russian agents launched a hacking and disinformation campaign aimed at swaying the election towards now-President Trump. 

The issue gained further attention in October, when federal officials revealed that Iran and Russia were seeking to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, including through spoofed voter intimidation emails. 

Over $800 million has been approved on a bipartisan basis by Congress since 2018 to help states shore up election security, with Hovland noting that these funds, on top of elections-related appropriations in the COVID-19 omnibus bill signed into law early last year, went a long way towards helping officials put on a secure election. 

But Democrats and Republicans have largely butted heads on steps necessary, beyond funding, to ensure elections were safe from foreign interference, with Republicans often raising concerns that legislation proposed by Democrats may serve to federalize elections.

With the House and Senate controlled by opposing parties, Congress was largely unable to address election security concerns beyond funding. But as power shifts to Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House, key senators are already planning to make a new push for election reform and security legislation.

“Free and fair elections are central to our Democracy and our identity as Americans, which is why I’m going to continue working to ensure that our elections remain safe, transparent, and free from foreign influence,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the incoming Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, told The Hill on Monday.

Warner said he planned to throw his weight behind the Honest Ads Act, legislation he introduced in 2019 alongside Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) that aimed to fight foreign interference through increasing the transparency of election advertisements on social media platforms.

“This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue,” Warner said. “This is about increasing public transparency and making sure that our adversaries cannot use our own technology platforms to interfere in our election or undermine our democracy.” 

A spokesperson for Klobuchar, the incoming chair of the Senate Rules Committee, told The Hill that she will focus on a range of issues to boost election security, including supporting the Honest Ads Act, enhancing cybersecurity and modernizing election infrastructure, and increasing paper ballots and audits.

“Some of my key priorities as the Chair of the Rules Committee – which has jurisdiction over federal elections – will be to make voting easier and more secure and to halt the flood of special interest and dark money that is drowning out the voices of the American people,” Klobuchar told The Hill in a statement. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the incoming chair of the Senate Finance Committee and an election security advocate, told The Hill that he was “urging” colleagues to make the topic a “top priority” this year. 

“Reforming our elections is essential to making American democracy more representative of our citizens, and to providing confidence that elections are legitimate,” Wyden said.  

Democrats may not be alone in their efforts to secure elections, particularly after a heated presidential election that left many Americans distrustful of the process due to debunked and unsubstantiated claims about widespread voter fraud and interference. 

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the outgoing chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said last month at a committee hearing that “oversight into election security should continue into the next Congress” in order to restore confidence. 

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), one of the key Republicans who has worked with Democrats in the past on election security issues, advocated for further work on the topic during a floor speech last week following the storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters. 

“I’ve said before and I’ll keep saying that good election administration is not about partisanship,” Hovland, who was nominated by President Trump, said. 

Outside the halls of the Capitol, President-elect Joe Biden has separately vowed to push back against foreign election interference. 

Biden said in a statement last year that he would “treat foreign interference in our election as an adversarial act,” and promised to move resources towards key election security-focused agencies including the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. 

“In spite of President Trump’s failure to act, America’s adversaries must not misjudge the resolve of the American people to counter every effort by a foreign power to interfere in our democracy,” Biden said last year. 

The Trump administration has taken a number of steps to hold foreign adversaries accountable for election interference, including levying sanctions against Russia and approving security funding for states. 

However, Trump himself has been criticized for not pushing back strongly enough against Russian actions, particularly following a 2018 press conference in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin when Trump initially refused to denounce Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

With Biden’s announcement that he was “putting the Kremlin and other foreign governments on notice” around election interference, policy towards Russia looks likely to harden. 

“There is no question that we need an executive that is clear-eyed about the threat of foreign interference in elections, and we need a Congress that can conduct oversight,” David Levine, a former Idaho election official who currently serves as an elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told The Hill on Monday.  

The issue of securing elections has gained even more momentum in the wake the storming of the U.S. Capitol last week, with rioters spurred on by election fraud concerns.  

“We have neither the time nor the bandwidth nor the know-how to deal effectively with misinformation and disinformation about our elections, so I am really hoping that going forward we are laser focused on actual vulnerabilities and how to address them,” Levine said. 

The new Congress has already taken the first major step this year towards making election changes through the reintroduction of the For the People Act in the House by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Administration Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). 

The bill, approved by the Democrat-controlled House last Congress, is a sweeping piece of legislation that would take numerous steps to reform and secure elections, including boosting paper ballots and voting rights.  

Beyond the election legislation efforts, Hovland said officials are advocating that Congress consider approving a consistent funding stream to give certainty to election officials working to enhance election security. 

The EAC chairman noted that with both funding and legislation, timing was of the essence. 

“Any substantial change, you never want to try to implement that in an election year,” Hovland said. “A little bit of runway to get new things going is helpful…it’s always important to be aware of the clock and where people are in the election cycle.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Donald Trump James Lankford Joe Biden John Sarbanes Mark Warner Nancy Pelosi Ron Johnson Ron Wyden Vladimir Putin Zoe Lofgren

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