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

May 15, 2019
Originally published on May 15, 2019 7:21 am

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.

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

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Tuesday the FBI confirmed to him that two counties had been compromised by Russian cyberattacks. No votes were changed, he said, but data was accessed.
John Raoux / AP

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."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Special counsel Robert Mueller's report has elicited a lot of arguing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nowhere in there does it say Mueller disagreed with the...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I talked directly to Bob Mueller.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm going to write Mr. Mueller a letter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: To look past Mueller, as hard as it was...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Now it's Mueller time.

KING: What it has not elicited so far is solutions. At least, not from Congress. NPR's Miles Parks has the story.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: If a new law was going to help shore up America's voting systems, last summer seemed like the time to pass it. 2016 was far enough in the rearview mirror so lawmakers knew a lot of what had happened, and it was close enough to another election, the midterms, to give the problem some urgency. A bipartisan bill emerged, Secure Elections Act. It said that if states were going to get federal money to support their elections, they needed to do a couple things - have paper backups for any of their electronic voting machines, and they needed to double-check their election results. The ideas are broadly popular in the election security community. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: 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.

PARKS: That's Senator Amy Klobuchar at a hearing earlier this month. She was the bill's Democratic co-sponsor. The White House said at the time that the bill would move too much power from the states to the federal government. Because of that, it never gained traction. And like a lot of other laws aimed at patching holes in American democracy, the legislation died. Oklahoma Senator James Lankford was the bill's Republican co-sponsor. Lankford says even if the 2018 midterms were mostly interference-free, Congress should still work to make future elections more secure.

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

PARKS: Nate Persily is a law professor at Stanford, and he's working on a report specifically about solutions for election interference. He says voting isn't the only space where Congress has failed to pass new legislation in the past three years. Most of the improvements, when it comes to transparency, data privacy and advertising on social media, have come from the social media companies themselves. Persily says that's good, but it's not a long-term solution.

NATE PERSILY: Government should regulate them. And it's a problem if we have unaccountable plutocrats being the ones who determine the rules for American elections.

PARKS: Even some who've profited from social media agree. Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's founders, spoke to The New York Times this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS HUGHES: We are so trained to look every time that Facebook fails to the next apology and the next prescription for what to do that we forget that we have the institutions and the tools to solve this problem, I think. This is on government to pick up the mantle and to solve.

PARKS: Bipartisan legislation was introduced last week that would make social media companies have to follow the same sort of political advertising rules as TV and radio. But the bill faces a tough road to passage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is passionate about protecting the First amendment and political speech. He's been skeptical of the bill in the past. Republicans in general have been just as worried, if not more worried, about censorship issues when it comes to regulation. They say the social media companies are biased against conservatives. The intelligence community is in agreement that Russia's interference was aimed at getting Donald Trump elected. Persily says that's part of what makes finding broad support for anything so difficult.

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

PARKS: It's clear to him that there are solutions. Congress, he said, just needs to find the will to apply them. Miles Parks, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.