On the eve of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s much anticipated testimony in the House of Representatives, Senate Democrats are trying to refocus the nation’s attention on Russian interference in US elections. Interference that they predict, and the intelligence community agrees, will only increase in 2020.
“The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections through foreign influence,” FBI director Christopher Wray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
There are a number of bipartisan efforts to protect the nation’s electoral process: The Honest Ads Act, cosponsored by Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), is aimed at keeping foreign actors from buying social media ads, among other things. The Duty to Report Act would “impose a legal duty on federal campaigns, candidates, and PACs to report offers of assistance from foreign nationals.” But one high hurdle to enacting those policies remains: Republican leadership.
“The only people that are stopping these kinds of common-sense measures from becoming law of the land are … [Senate majority leader] McConnell and President Trump,” said Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), who serves as vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, at a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Warner and other Democrats argue that the holes in the nation’s electoral system are so obvious that proponents already have the votes to pass a myriad of bipartisan bills.
“We’re talking about low-hanging fruit that, if it came to the floor of the Senate, they would pass with close to 80-plus votes,” Warner said, claiming that these measures could easily bypass a presidential veto.
Still, Republican leaders dismiss these efforts as unnecessary, and they point to the last federal election as their case in point. “Most of our members, at least, believe that with the additional resources given to the states and the way the states improved their game in 2018 that we’re on the right track,” Senate majority whip John Thune told WIRED.
Congress set aside $380 million last year for states to beef up election security through the Help America Vote Act, but experts say more federal funding is needed. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice released a report just last week arguing that “even after these funds have been spent, many election security needs will remain unmet at the state and local level.”
Thune, speaking on behalf of McConnell and other leaders, said the GOP leadership’s reticence stems from fears that Democrats are trying to de-federalize local elections.
“They want to nationalize our election process, and I think most Republicans think a decentralized process is less likely to be gamed than if we had a nationalized system that does it,” Thune said. “The states by and large—with few exceptions—they do a really good job. They’ve invested, I think, heavily in firewalls and they worked effectively in 2018, and we hope that will be true in 2020.”
No Democrat currently in office is arguing to nationalize elections. Senate Democrats are, however, calling for more resources from Washington, along with more stringent rules governing federal elections. Their legislative proposals include the Protecting American Votes and Elections Act, which no Republican has yet sponsored. Among other things, the bill would require states to use voting machines with paper ballots, rather than digital-only systems; paper ballots serve as a backup and can be audited in the event of suspected interference or cyberattack.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to advance that bill,” said Senator Klobuchar. “That’s really disturbing that we’re not getting that done.”
These senators, along with the bipartisan partners who have signed on to many of their proposals, fear the country hasn’t learned the right lessons from 2016. But they differ on what exactly the biggest threats are.
Senator Warner is also worried about outside actors intervening, as was laid out in Mueller’s report, through hacking into the personal information of campaign officials, attempting to penetrate election systems nationwide, and creating fake accounts intended to sow discord on social media, which intelligence officials also witnessed happening in the UK’s Brexit vote and the last French presidential election.
But, technologically speaking, 2020 is light years away from 2016, and lawmakers see new potential tools and tactics to simply—and at a bargain-basement price—disrupt the American electoral system in the meantime.
“Maybe the single greatest new threat, from at least the social media standpoint, is the use of deepfakes,” Warner said. “If seeing is believing, the ability for a foreign government—for a foreign entity—to manipulate the images of any of our political candidates to appear to say something they’re not saying, is really, I think, one of the most chilling aspects.”
Warner, who is still angry that Facebook refused to take down a manipulated video of House speaker Nancy Pelosi—which was not even a deepfake, but just slowed-down footage—says that tackling this threat will take “greater collaboration with the social media companies than we’ve seen to date.”
Still, others say the problems hovering just over the horizon are more widespread.
“In this era, algorithms will amplify and magnify false, purposefully untrue messages,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) said. “Much like atomic fission in the nuclear era, we have no real understanding—even the social media companies have been candid that they have no real understanding about the power of algorithms to magnify false messages.”
Blumenthal’s not alone in his fears that the problem has only grown since the last presidential election.
“If you would ask me about one huge new vulnerability—and you would think on the basis of what happened in 2016 people would have gotten the wake-up call—I think personal devices, and the risk that that presents to both personal and national security, will be a major part of 2020,” said Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), who’s on the Intelligence Committee. He did not elaborate on what, exactly, those risks are.
But as House lawmakers prepare to hear from Mueller for the first time under oath since his bombshell of a report was issued, many Democrats are also crying out for the entire Congress to be allowed to view—and then hopefully disseminate across the land—the full, unredacted Mueller report.
“Even as a member of the Judiciary Committee, not on Intelligence, our committee couldn’t read the redacted parts of the Russia piece of this, which I think is outrageous, and we are pursuing it with the Justice Department,” Klobuchar, a presidential candidate, said. Many of the redactions occur in recounting the GRU and Internet Research Agency efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. “But there is so much information beyond what Mueller is going to be able to testify about tomorrow, and so we just must continue focusing. We’ve got to get this unredacted. We’ve got to make the case, and time is ticking. There’s not much time.”
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