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Pressure ramping up for Mitch McConnell to allow the Senate to discuss election security measures

Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden has tweeted numerous times calling for election security legislation (which McConnell has systematically blocked), each time counting down the days until the presidential election.

Pressure ramping up for Mitch McConnell to allow the Senate to discuss election security measures
Senator Ron Wyden [Photo: Flickr user New America; David Becker/Unsplash]

As the Democratic primary season kicks off with Monday’s Iowa caucus, Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden is ramping up his Twitter campaign to get election security legislation considered in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-Kentucky) has systematically blocked such legislation from even being discussed on the Senate floor, earning him the moniker “Moscow Mitch” to amplify the fact that Russia targeted election systems in all 50 states during the 2016 election.

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Each time Wyden tweets about the topic, he cites the number of days until the presidential election, and the numbers are rapidly getting smaller. In today’s tweet, it’s 275. On January 20, it was 288, the previous tweet stated.

Last July the Mueller Report detailed a number of attempts by hackers to interfere with voting technology like voting machines and tabulation and reporting software during the 2016 election. It also described the Russian hackers’ successful theft of sensitive emails on the server of the Democratic Party, which were then spoon-fed to the press to maximize the damage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

It could all happen again. And part of the reason is that the U.S. government, specifically the Department of Homeland Security—has not set out any binding requirements for counties and states to follow when buying and securing voting machines and other systems.

“The federal government’s response to this ongoing crisis cannot be limited to offers to provide resources and information, the acceptance of which is voluntary,” Wyden said in a statement last July. “If the country’s elections are to be defended, Congress must also establish mandatory, nationwide cybersecurity requirements.”

The House of Representatives passed a number of bills covering different aspects of election security during 2019, some of which contained specific, binding election security requirements for states. Companion legislation has been introduced in committee in the Senate, but none of those bills has made it to the Senate floor for debate. Wyden and Minnesota Democrat (and presidential candidate) Amy Klobuchar co-sponsored one of those bills in the Senate—the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act (SAFE).

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Finally in December, McConnell lent his support for a general allocation of $425 million to states to improve election security systems. The allocation, which was part of a general governmental funding bill, requires that the states match 20% of the government funds received to put toward improving the security of voting machines and other election tech.

Some pundits said McConnell may have been softened by the popularity of his Moscow Mitch nickname, a school-yard name-calling tactic borrowed from President Trump. McConnell publicly whined about it on right-wing commentator Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, calling the repetition of the nickname “modern-day McCarthyism.”

Still, the $425 million doesn’t come with requirements on how it must be spent. That is, states can spend the money in new, insecure voting machines with no paper ballot if they wish.

Many Democrats said the funding was too little, too late.

Big Tech on Iowa eve

Big Tech is also making assurances that it will do its part to control political misinformation as the primary season kicks off. The perpetrators of the misinformation campaign to assist Donald Trump in 2016 must certainly have been encouraged by their success at sowing discord in America, and will almost certainly try to interfere in the 2020 race, say experts. Their methods, however, will have evolved and may be harder to detect.

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Google recently unveiled its election security and misinformation-blocking efforts, explaining that it’s actively monitoring its various properties for “account hijackings, inauthentic activity, disinformation campaigns, coordinated attacks, and other forms of abuse . . .” Google also says it’s working with law enforcement and government agencies to report suspect activity that might point to election meddling. And it’s offering to help candidates, campaigns, and election officials with security tools to help them protect their websites or email from hacks.

Twitter recently announced that it is providing users a way to report political misinformation such as bogus tweets announcing the closure of polling stations.

Facebook has been mired in criticism over its decision to allow misinformation in ads run by politicians, which certainly doesn’t help matters. On the plus side, the company said more recently that as of February 8 it will require all political ads to declare the owner of the Facebook page to which the ad is associated. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said his company now has 35,000 people working on security (not necessarily applying to politics). And Facebook says it has an “election operations center” in Menlo Park that will stay open throughout the primary season, and presumably during the general election. 

Despite these preparations, the social platforms these companies have built are so massive that finding and deleting misinformation fast enough to prevent damage may be impossible. Their reach has been their main virtue, but in the political realm that virtue can turn very quickly into a curse.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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