Election infrastructure bill remains stalled as Senate Intelligence panel releases first volume of Russia report

Sen. James Lankford still wants to work on paper trail legislation

The Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Richard M. Burr, right, and Mark Warner, released an election security report on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Richard M. Burr, right, and Mark Warner, released an election security report on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 25, 2019 at 6:41pm

As the Senate Intelligence Committee was releasing the first volume of its comprehensive report into Russian election interference in 2016, a Republican senator was making clear that he still wants to get support for encouraging states to have paper audit trails and to boost the ability of election officials to get timely security clearances.

Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who has been working with Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, told reporters Thursday that with the 2020 primaries and caucuses just around the corner, security enhancements would be meant for the next midterms.

“The discussion now is not about 2020. That’s already resolved,” Lankford said. “They’re not going to add new stuff unless its already currently in the pipeline. It’s really 2022 at this point.”

Lankford said that if he and Klobuchar can find a way to overcome objections from lawmakers concerned about undue federal influence in state and local elections, they will be looking for a legislative vehicle for their measure.

“By the end of the day, it’s going to be one of those moments for everyone to look at and say, ‘This is reasonable, this has been agreed upon, and this is the right bill to be able to attach it to,’” Lankford said. “I don’t ever anticipate it’s going to be a standalone. … It’s going to be attached to something us.”

Lankford said getting text finalized would be the immediate priority, while giving a nod to his Democratic counterpart’s current 2020 campaign for the White House.

“Amy and I have got to move from ‘We’re debating and debating it,’” he said. “We’ve got just a couple of issues of disagreement on. We’ve got to actually get that resolved. She’s a little busy right now as well, though.”

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Mostly bipartisan report

The Intelligence Committee report released Thursday focuses on what state and local governments, as well as the federal government, still need to do to sure up elections. The panel’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, who led the inquiry along with Chairman Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, noted how ill-prepared officials were for malign Russian action ahead of 2016.

“Since then — and in large part as a result of the bipartisan work done on this issue in our committee — the intelligence community, [Department of Homeland Security], the FBI and the states have taken steps to ensure that our elections are far more secure today than they were in 2016. But there’s still much more we can and must do to protect our elections,” Warner said in a statement. “I hope the bipartisan findings and recommendations outlined in this report will underscore to the White House and all of our colleagues, regardless of political party, that this threat remains urgent, and we have a responsibility to defend our democracy against it.”

Among the report’s highlights is guidance to local election supervisors on what to look for in procuring new voting machines..

“Paper ballots and optical scanners are the least vulnerable to cyber attack; at minimum, any machine purchased going forward should have a voter-verified paper trail and remove (or render inert) any wireless networking capability,” the report said.

A key objective, according to the report, is to reinforce the “primacy” of states in running elections. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden offered a dissent, saying he could not support such a statement, but in general, the report appears to be overwhelmingly bipartisan.

Three other Democrats on the panel expressed general, but not universal, agreement with the report.

“We share some of our colleagues’ concerns about the vulnerability that we face, particularly at the state level, where counties with limited resources must defend themselves against sophisticated nation-state adversaries,” Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Kamala Harris of California and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said. “Nevertheless, the report as a whole makes an important contribution to the public’s understanding of how Russia interfered in 2016, and underscores the importance of working together to defend against the threat going forward.”

Bennet and Harris are running for president in 2020.

The report mentions the $380 million allocated by Congress for election infrastructure investment, though the Intelligence panel’s recommendations go well beyond that.

“The United States should communicate to adversaries that it will view an attack on its election infrastructure as a hostile act, and we will respond accordingly. The U.S. Government should not limit its response to cyber activity; rather, it should create a menu of potential responses that will send a clear message and create significant costs for the perpetrator,” the report said.

As Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn told CQ Roll Call shortly before the release from Burr and Warner,  Republicans have expressed skepticism of the need for additional legislative measures.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell objected once again Thursday to some Democratic efforts to pass related bills by unanimous consent, though Congress has already made some moves on a bipartisan basis.

“I think Sen. McConnell’s been pretty consistent that he doesn’t want the federal government running all of the elections,” Cornyn said. “The truth is the 2018 elections were largely interference-free, but that’s a result of the money that we’ve already appropriated and the technology that is now in place on these state-run systems through the Department of Homeland Security.”