Russian Election Influence: What is Congress Doing?

Facebook has identified a political influence campaign that was possibly built to disrupt the midterm elections. Facebook detected and deleted 32 pages and fake accounts that had engaged in activity around divisive social issues.

The Senate Intelligence Committee  held a hearing with social media experts on foreign influence aimed at disrupting U.S. elections. Dan Coates, Director of National Intelligence stated he has seen evidence that Russia tried “to hack into and steal information from candidates and government officials alike.”

Senators Claire McCaskill and Jeanne Shaheen confirmed that hacking has happened to them.  And Phillip Howard, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, studied web traffic in the U.S. in the lead-up to the presidential election. He found that about one half of all news on Twitter directed at the swing state of Michigan was fake. Other experts confirmed that disinformation was much more heavily targeted at swing states, like Florida.

Yet, our elected leaders in Washington have refused to act. Here is what the Wall Street Journal reported on August 1:

Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a Democratic effort to increase spending on election security measures, saying they wanted to see what states do with grants they have already been provided.

The amendment, which would have appropriated $250 million for grants to states through the federal Election Assistance Commission, garnered 50 in favor to 47 opposed, largely on party lines and shy of the 60 needed to pass. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker was the only Republican to vote in support of the amendment.

“A lot of the states want this kind of help to make sure their systems are not going to be hacked,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii) “The Republicans are not standing in line to help them, which I think is a real testament to what they think about protecting our democracy.”

Opponents of the amendment said they want to see how the states spend the 2018 grant money before they appropriate more. Sending money to states “would just be another step maybe towards convincing the states that somebody besides them is going to be responsible for elections in their state,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. “That shouldn’t be the case, it won’t be the case.”

Federal investigators last month accused two Russian intelligence officials of attempting to hack into state election agencies and voting software companies. U.S. intelligence officials have warned Moscow is likely to try again this year, potentially casting doubt on the legitimacy of the midterm election results. But Democrats and Republicans are at odds on what preventive measures to take and whether it must happen before November.

Last week, 21 state attorneys general, all Democrats, sent a letter to Congress asking for more money for the Election Assistance Commission “to support election security improvements at the state level and to protect the personal data of the voters of our states.”

The grants were intended to help state election officials bolster cybersecurity defenses and replace outdated voting equipment, among other measures.

A spending deal reached in March appropriated $380 million for the Election Assistance Commission for fiscal year 2018, including funds to shore up election systems against cyberattacks. The amendment that fell on Wednesday would have appropriated $250 million for the fiscal year 2019, which begins on Oct. 1.

Mr. Blunt will hold a hearing later this month on legislation that would aim to streamline cybersecurity information-sharing among federal intelligence agencies. The proposed legislation would also give security clearances to state election officials so they can evaluate threats and collaborate with federal officials.

Last month, House Republicans blocked an effort by House Democrats to add $380 million for the Election Assistance Commission to a broader spending bill for the Treasury Department, the judiciary and related agencies. The appropriations bills from the House and Senate will have to be reconciled and pass both chambers again. The Senate effort was one more attempt to get money for the commission before lawmakers go to conference.