Klobuchar finds Attorney General Barr unaware of major election security legislation

Minnesota Democrat presses for Justice Department support for bipartisan plan that's stalled

Attorney General William Barr takes his seat before the start of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the “Department of Justice’s Investigation of Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election.“(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday that he was not familiar with the Senate’s bipartisan effort to enhance the security of election systems ahead of 2020.

Barr had not yet returned to the Department of Justice when, last year, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee abruptly cancelled a markup of a bipartisan bill known as the Secure Elections Act.

The legislation crafted by Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford and Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar seeks to require state election officials to conduct audits following elections, as well as to establish paper ballot backup systems.

“The White House, just as we were on the verge of getting a markup in the Rules Committee, getting it to the floor where I think we would get the vast majority of senators, the White House made calls to stop this,” Klobuchar said at the hearing, recalling the events of August 2018.

Klobuchar then asked Barr for a commitment to work on the legislation.

“I will work with you to enhance the security of our election, and I’ll take a look at what you are proposing,” Barr said. “I’m not familiar with it.”

Klobuchar responded to Barr by pointing out that the bill is the main bipartisan measure related to election security, noting support of Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., as well as fellow Judiciary Committee members including Democrat Kamala Harris of California and Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Klobuchar, who is the ranking member on Rules and Administration and one of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, brought up both the election security measure and a separate piece of legislation that would require new disclosures about the source of ads on internet social media platforms.

The bipartisan advertising disclosure mandate bill has never had much of a chance in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been a critic of the concept, given his expansive view of the First Amendment on campaign finance questions.

“I’m a little skeptical of these disclosure-type proposals that are floating around, which strikes me would mostly penalize American citizens trying to use the internet and to advertise,” McConnell said back in 2017.

The White House argued that the election security legislation would constitute undue federal involvement in state operations of elections.

“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,” Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said in a statement at the time.

While some funding for states to improve election security has been provided through the appropriations process, there has been no sign of progress on mandating state election boards have paper backups and routine audits since the markup was cancelled last summer on the underlying legislation.

The day that Barr released the redacted version of Mueller’s report over recess, Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt told reporters that he did not anticipate additional election security legislation moving forward.

“I don’t believe it will. We will have a hearing soon with the Election Advisory Commission, probably look further into what the homeland security community is doing, have looked in a couple of different ways at what was successfully accomplished in 2018 to combat efforts to interfere in our political process,“ the Missouri Republican said on April 18. “We’re going to continue to watch that.”

On Wednesday, Klobuchar argued to Barr that the election security was necessary, “otherwise we are not going to have any clout to get backup paper ballots, in the event Russia or some other adversary succeeds in further meddling in 2020.”


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