As The Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez reports, McConnell endorsed $250 million to go to states to help them combat hacking and other election security threats going into the 2020 election cycle. That’s after blocking a House-passed bill with more than double that, $600 million, requiring states to upgrade their aging voting machines and make them less susceptible to Russian hacking.
“I’m proud the financial services and the general government bill included a bipartisan amendment providing another $250 million from the administration to help states improve their defenses and shore up their voting systems,” McConnell said. “I’m proud to have helped develop this amendment and co-sponsor it in committee.”
When it comes to election security, McConnell has been in a tough place, politically: He could pass the major election security bill and risk upsetting President Trump; or block the bill and see what happens. But the political fallout from blocking the bill may have been more than he was expecting. McConnell didn’t have to announce this funding Thursday, which cleared a key committee that morning, but it’s notable that he did.
Why is election security such a politicized issue in the first place? Because of Trump. He has difficulty acknowledging what intelligence agencies and the Mueller report concluded: that Russians interfered in the U.S. election to try to help him win. And they went beyond pushing fake news on social media or hacking into Democrats’ emails. A bipartisan Senate report found Russians tried to hack voting machines in all 50 states in 2016.
It seems likely that McConnell didn’t want to get in the middle of that. So this summer, when Congress was about to go on recess and Democrats tried to bring up this election security bill, he interjected and stopped it from moving forward.
McConnell said at the time that the federal government was already working with states to address election interference and that passing more legislation would be too heavy-handed, since states run their own elections. Most, but not all, of his caucus agreed with his position. “Some of my colleagues see this as a first step to nationalizing elections,” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), who chairs a key subcommittee on all this, said Tuesday about why Republicans oppose giving a significant amount of money to pad states’ efforts to prevent hacking.
Now McConnell is saying it was this $250 million coming through a Republican-controlled Senate that he preferred all along.
Election security experts with whom The Fix spoke in July warned that a couple hundred million is not enough to protect Americans’ voting systems from a threat that Trump’s own head of the FBI warns is coming in 2020.
“The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified to senators in July.
The House bill, which passed with one Republican vote, does “some basic things” to protect U.S. elections, said Suzanne Spaulding, who was an undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama. It’s a package of bills that tries to address disinformation campaigns on social media and ties about $600 million in funding for new election systems in the states to requirements that they upgrade their equipment to make sure they are less hackable. But the perception that voting machines are safe matters, Spaulding said.
“That’s important to make sure our elections are secure,” she said in July, “but what’s critically important is we have a way of assuring the public that their vote was counted as cast.”
When McConnell blocked the legislation, it became a national story, perhaps more than he was expecting. (Leading into the 2018 midterm elections, Senate Republicans blocked an election security measure without nearly as much fanfare.)
But when criticism did start to pick up, McConnell got the support from Trump he ostensibly bargained for. A Washington Post columnist labeled McConnell a “Russian asset,” and McConnell responded on the Senate floor that he was the target of “modern-day McCarthyism.”
Trump jumped in and backed up McConnell: “I think The Washington Post is a Russian asset by comparison,” Trump told reporters. “Mitch McConnell loves our country. He’s done a great job.”
Those are nice words to hear when you’re McConnell and are up for reelection next year in a pro-Trump state. (His Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath, is raising tons of money but has an uphill climb to unseat him.)
But after weeks of “Moscow Mitch” being a thing, it appears Trump’s support wasn’t enough for McConnell to hold off on all election security bills. And he wanted us to know about it.