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No new legislative momentum after election security briefings

House has passed legislation, but there is no plan for moving a Senate bill

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks with reporters as he leaves the closed briefing on election security in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks with reporters as he leaves the closed briefing on election security in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Marco Rubio emerged from a closed briefing on the Trump administration’s efforts to secure elections and made a renewed push for his own bipartisan deterrence legislation, even as he acknowledged there has not been momentum.

“In my view, they’re doing everything you can do,” Rubio said of the administration efforts. “Election interference is a broadly used term, and understand this is psychological warfare. It’s designed to weaken America from the inside out, to drive divisions internally so we fight with each other, to undermine our confidence in the elections and in our democracy and particularly to undermine individual candidates either because they don’t like that candidate or because they know someone else.”

[House passes election security measure requiring cybersecurity safeguards, paper ballots]

Rubio, a Florida Republican, then plugged the DETER Act, a bipartisan bill he introduced with Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen, that is designed to provide for new sanctions to be imposed against Russia or other adversaries in the event of future interference.

But when asked whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky might provide any floor time, Rubio acknowledged the uphill climb.

“There was interest in it about a year ago and it’s obviously died down,” Rubio said. “I think there’s a little bit of sanctions fatigue around here, but I would add that this is … prospective sanctions. These are sanctions that would only happen if there’s interference.”

“I hope we can restart some momentum on it,” he said.

Separate legislation that has already passed the House would promote the use of paper backup systems in administering elections, but a markup of one such bill was abruptly canceled by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and never rescheduled after facing criticism about undue federal interference.

Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri said Wednesday that further legislation focused on election security wouldn’t be the right thing to do, and he doesn’t expect more election legislation to move through his committee. 

“Federal involvement in the process, from our national security agencies, particularly the Department of Homeland Security, I think [it’s] added a significant element in 2018. And that will be even greater in 2020,” he said.

Blunt also said there’s general agreement that a paper backup for election systems is a key element of election security going forward. 

“I think we’d all like to see every state move toward a paper ballot backup system where you’d have some piece of paper to count, if there was any question about the election count itself,” he told reporters after the briefing.

Blunt said there are about a half dozen states that still don’t have that kind of backup. He said that trying to transition those states to a new system before the 2020 election would be hard to do, but asserted it as a goal for the 2022 midterm elections. 

“Federalization of the process, would I think add an extra level of confusion rather than an extra level of protection,” Blunt said. 

Briefers Wednesday included acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Senators were given a classified briefing shortly after a similar session in the House.

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson told reporters after the first briefing that lawmakers were assured elections systems are secured for the upcoming 2020 contest and relevant agencies have what they need. 

“At this point, we’ve been told there the resources are available to secure the 2020 election,” the Mississippi Democrat said.  “We were assured that as we go into a more formal part of the elections season, our systems at this point are secure.”

Thompson didn’t count out the possibility that more resources might be needed to secure elections, but said additional funding requests were not made during the briefing. 

“They were quite clear that we have the resources. If there’s something we will need to secure the elections they’ll come back to Congress with the request,” Thompson told reporters.

After the Senate briefing, Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said more funding may still be needed.

“There’s a lot of smart people in that room. I think we have a president who’s actively undermining election security efforts and a lot of people working at the top of these agencies who are trying to do the right thing,” he said. 

Murphy, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that there is not clarity on funding for election security. 

“I think there’s still an ongoing dispute as to whether we need more money. There’s a number of states that, you know, unquestionably need more money. The administration disagrees,” he said.  “I think we should err on the side of making sure that we have all the resources available. And if states are asking for money, I don’t know why we wouldn’t provide it to them when the stakes are this high.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said she was among the members asking questions behind closed doors. She said that not all questions were answered, but the briefers involved agreed to meet with interested lawmakers in smaller groups.

“I don’t think it’s talking out of school to say I was at least glad to hear an acknowledgment that they didn’t do enough in 2016, and that they recognize that,” the Florida Democrat said.

Wasserman Schultz, a former Democratic National Committee chairwoman, and other members of the Florida delegation have been particularly interested in the security of election systems after it became clear there was an incursion into the voter rolls of counties in the Sunshine State ahead of 2016.

Rep. Mike D. Rogers, the top Republican on the Homeland Security panel, said the briefing didn’t illuminate any new threats to election security.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve got a need for more election security legislation. When the question was asked, they basically said no. They thought they’ve got the authority they need right now,” the Alabama congressman said on his way out of the briefing. 

He said he did learn more about what federal agencies undertook in 2018. 

“I was reassured by some of the things they’re doing that I wasn’t aware of, that have been exercised in the last election season to help protect those elections,” he said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham expressed similar sentiments after the Senate-side briefing.

“I was very impressed,” the Republican from South Carolina told reporters. “They all said the president has given them every authority they’ve asked for. No interference by the White House and they’re building on the success of 2018.”

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