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Mueller Report Elicited A Lot Of Conversation — But Little Election Legislation

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Sen. James Lankford, R.-Okla., said he worries an opportune moment may pass following the release of the Mueller report without new action to secure U.S. elections.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP

Sen. James Lankford, R.-Okla., said he worries an opportune moment may pass following the release of the Mueller report without new action to secure U.S. elections.

Sen. James Lankford is worried about election apathy.

Not that people will stop caring about politics, but as the weeks and months pass after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on Russian interference, the Oklahoma Republican said he worries there won't be the same urgency to safeguard American democracy.

The 2018 midterms went by without a major cybersecurity breach, but the issue isn't solved, Lankford warned.

"If it continues to go well, people become apathetic about it, and they say this is not a problem," Lankford told NPR. "There will always be a problem. Every single NATO country has had election interference from the Russians. Every single one. If we ignore that, it's to our peril."

Mueller's report, and the fallout from the investigation, has elicited enough fodder to fill years' worth of cable news panel discussions, but what it hasn't led to — so far — is legislation aimed at plugging the holes Russia exposed in democracy.

Securing the vote

If Congress was going to pass a new law to help shore up America's voting systems, last summer seemed like the time to do it.

The election security problems that defined the 2016 campaign were far enough in the past so lawmakers had a grasp on what happened, and the 2018 midterms were close enough to give the problem some urgency.

Support comes from

A bipartisan bill emerged: the Secure Elections Act.

It mandated paper ballot backups for states that receive federal money to support their elections and required audited election results. These ideas are broadly popular in the election security community.

"Yet just as we were on the verge of getting a markup in the Rules Committee, and getting it to the floor where I think we would get the vast majority of senators, the White House made calls to stop this," said the bill's Democratic co-sponsor, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, at a hearing earlier this month.

The White House said at the time that the bill would move too much power from states to the federal government. Because of that, like a lot of other laws aimed at improving American Democracy over the past three years, the legislation died.

Lankford, the Republican co-sponsor, said work is being done to reintroduce the bill at some point this session.

The upper chamber

It isn't clear whether the bill might even make it to a vote, however. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made it clear last week on the Senate floor that he wants Congress to "move on" from Mueller's report.

McConnell noted that Congress allocated $380 million toward election security last year, and that the Department of Homeland Security has improved its information sharing with the states about potential threats.

"No longer will we just hope Moscow respects our sovereignty, we will now defend it," McConnell said. "Thanks to efforts across the federal government, in 2018 we were ready."

The election grants that Congress dispersed last year, however, were not nearly enough to even fully address one of the most basic technical improvements needed in the U.S. voting system.

Those who monitor election security closely say there is still much more to be done.

"There are still so many gaps in our systems that sophisticated adversaries, including Russia, have the technical ability to do massive damage," J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, told NPR last year.

The latest reminder about those vulnerabilities arrived on Tuesday, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he'd learned cyberattackers had successfully broken into the networks of two county elections offices in 2016.

Interference on the web

Voting isn't the only area in which Congress has largely failed to pass new legislation since Mueller's report or before, says Nate Persily, a law professor at Stanford who is working on a report about solutions for election interference.

Russia's influence specialists in 2016 used big social media platforms to pit Americans against each other with a vast agitation campaign that involved amplifying controversy as much as possible and even organizing "dozens" of rallies in real life, Mueller's office found.

Most of the recent changes in transparency, data privacy, and advertising on social media have been the result of new policies implemented by social media companies themselves, Persily says.

He called that a good development but said it's not a long-term solution for big tech platforms.

"Governments should regulate them," Persily said. "It's a problem if we have unaccountable plutocrats being the ones who determine the rules for American elections."

Even one of Facebook's founders agrees.

Chris Hughes wrote an op-ed called "It's Time To Break Up Facebook" in The New York Times last week.

"I think government should step up, break up the company and regulate it," Hughes told NPR's Morning Edition.

Bipartisan legislation was introduced last week that would require social media companies to follow the same sort of political advertising rules as television and radio, but that bill faces a tough road to passage.

McConnell has been skeptical of the measure in the past, and is passionate about protecting political speech.

Observers also worry that the findings by Mueller have made the politics surrounding election security too difficult. There are solutions, Persily says — Congress just struggles to "find the will" to apply them.

"One of the unfortunate consequences of the 2016 election," he said, "is that since the problems are seen as having benefited one party and not the other, trying to address those problems is seen as partisan."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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