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House panel backs election security bill in aftermath of 2016 Russian interference

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) speaks as she holds a copy of the report by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, while Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) listens, during a hearing on June 10, 2019.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) speaks as she holds a copy of the report by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, while Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) listens, during a hearing on June 10, 2019. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

A House panel on Friday backed legislation to improve election security ahead of next year’s contests as Democrats press for shoring up the nation’s voting system after Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

On a party-line vote of 6 to 3, the House Administration Committee endorsed the Securing America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act of 2019, whose provisions would include mandating paper ballots that could be verified, providing $600 million in grant money to update voting equipment and establishing cybersecurity requirements for elections.

The full House is expected to consider the bill next week. However, the Senate is unlikely to act on the measure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposes such a measure, casting the legislation as unnecessary while pointing to the millions of Americans who voted in the 2018 midterm elections.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on June 13 that President Trump “would not allow any foreign country to interfere in our elections." (Video: Reuters)

Nevertheless, Democrats are pressing ahead in the House.

“As we all should know and now appreciate, our country suffered ‘multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election’ in the 2016 presidential election,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the committee, echoing the words of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. “While we have made modest progress to bolster our defenses, it’s clear from the analysis of our intelligence community and a host of independent experts from across the political spectrum that more must be done.”

Mueller, in brief remarks last month, said the nearly two-year investigation found that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, with Russian operatives stealing private Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign emails that were then released by WikiLeaks.

Mueller report lays out obstruction evidence against the president

Several other bills have been introduced to address election security, but with Republicans and Democrats quarreling over the take-aways from the Mueller report, election security has become highly politicized. Some conservatives argue that the danger to the election system has been overstated, while Democrats are pressing for more safeguards.

Among the legislation is the Honest Ads Act, introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a 2020 presidential candidate. The bill would increase public disclosure for online political advertisements. Operatives in Russia bought ads on Facebook during the 2016 presidential race. Klobuchar’s bill has bipartisan support, with Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) a co-sponsor.

Another bipartisan bill, the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines Act, led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), also seeks to prevent foreign interference in U.S. elections.

This week, Democrats criticized McConnell for his unwillingness to move ahead on the legislation.

“Things are going to get a lot worse in 2020, and the Republican Senate, Leader McConnell just stands there and twiddles their thumbs and almost says, ‘Come on, Putin, let it happen,’ ” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday.

Joseph Marks contributed to this report.