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Why Is the White House Trying to Block a Key Election Security Bill?

Despite significant bipartisan support, the Election Security Act hit a massive roadblock this week

Russia, Trump

President Trump

Susan Watts/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Hours after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for interfering in the 2016 election, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that Russia is still very much a threat to America’s democratic process. “The warning lights are blinking red again,” he said. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.” President Trump doesn’t seem to share his intelligence director’s concern. On Wednesday Yahoo reported that the White House intervened to block a bipartisan Senate bill that would have fortified election security nationwide.

Introduced by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) and co-sponsored by a powerful bipartisan cadre of lawmakers including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Susan Collins (R-ME), the Secure Elections Act would have fostered greater coordination between states and the federal government in combating election interference. Top state election officials would have been given clearance to receive information regarding threats, an advisory board would have been established to outline the best ways to combat cybersecurity threats and states would have been required to conduct an audit following federal elections. The bill also focused on creating a paper record of votes that could not be manipulated by hacking efforts. “Paper is not antiquated,” Lankford said while defending the bill. “It’s reliable.”

Lankford and the co-sponsors had already secured bipartisan support, and the bill was scheduled to go up for a vote in October. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) was set to conduct a markup of the bill on Wednesday, but the review was abruptly canceled after Blunt claimed it lacked enough Republican support. According to congressional sources interviewed by Yahoo, it was the White House that stepped in to kill the effort. “Elections are the responsibility of the states and local governments,” White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters said in a statement. “We cannot support legislation with inappropriate mandates or that moves power or funding from the states to Washington for the planning and operation of elections.”

Lankford disagreed, arguing that states should not be expected to protect against attacks from foreign adversaries, and that because the elections in question are federal, the federal government should work with states to ensure their integrity. “Your election in Delaware affects the entire country,” the senator told Yahoo. “Your election in Florida affects the entire country.” Klobuchar added in a statement that “each and every day Vladimir Putin, hostile nations, and criminal forces devise new schemes to muck up our democracy and other infrastructure” and that “when our nation is under attack from foreign governments there is a federal obligation to act.”

The bill was thwarted on the same day senators were briefed on Russia’s current efforts to influence U.S. elections. “Everything we’ve done on Russia has not worked,” Graham said as he was leaving the briefing, which was attended by all 100 senators. Despite the clarity of the threat — as well as several recent reports of attempts to interfere in the midterms — many feel that not enough has done to bolster America’s election security ahead of the November midterms. In July, Rep. Mike Quiqley (D-IL) introduced an amendment that would have added election security grants to an appropriations bill. “The American people should be very worried about the commitment of this president and his Republican allies in Congress to securing our elections,” Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI) said in defense of the amendment. “This is a party that has worked with this administration to undermine and minimize the investigation surrounding Russian interference in our presidential election.” The amendment was voted down.

The lack of action can be traced to the White House, which hasn’t projected any consistent sense of urgency in safeguarding America’s electoral system against cyberattacks. More specifically, it can be traced to Trump, who has neglected the issue almost entirely. It’s unclear what exactly is behind Trump’s apathy when it comes to election security. Maybe he feels acknowledging interference in some way diminishes the magnitude of his victory over Hillary Clinton. Maybe he sees that Democrats are targeted more than Republicans and wants all the help he can get. Maybe he is in some way indebted to Putin.

One thing that’s clear is that the president is still (publicly) skeptical that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, despite the overwhelming consensus of the U.S. intelligence community, as well as every legislative body that has investigated the matter. After siding with Putin in Helsinki last month, Trump was pressured into professing his faith in the intelligence community. As time as passed he’s reverted to questioning their findings. While speaking with Reuters earlier this week, the president once again expressed doubt that Russia meddled in the election. “[Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation] played right into the Russians,” Trumps aid. “If it was Russia, they played right into the Russians’ hands.”

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