Bipartisan Senators Introduce Legislation To Prevent Foreign Interference

Aug 1, 2018
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Top government officials are pretty clear about foreign interference in the 2016 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: It was the Russians. We know that. They know that. It was directed from the highest levels.

CHANG: That's Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaking yesterday at a cybersecurity summit in New York. But with the midterms fast approaching, is the government any better equipped to fend off another round of election interference?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Vice President Mike Pence says yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Any attempt to interfere in our elections is an affront to our democracy, and it will not be allowed.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: He spoke yesterday at the same gathering as Nielsen. Yet President Trump has repeatedly downplayed risk to election security, and at least one senator up for re-election already has been targeted by hackers believed to be acting on Russia's behalf. Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri spoke about this with NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I remain disappointed that our government has not been more aggressive in going after this cyberwarfare.

CHANG: All right, we're joined now by two senators who are trying to get more aggressive about stopping Russia and securing our elections. They've sponsored legislation that would encourage states to work with Washington on election cybersecurity and would direct states to take more steps to verify election results. James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, and Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, welcome to both of you.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: Thanks.

JAMES LANKFORD: You bet. Glad to be with you.

CHANG: So I have to ask. It's August now. The midterm election is just three months away. Your bill is still in committee. Senator Lankford, does this legislation just feel a little late for 2018?

LANKFORD: Well, there's some of the aspects that have already been implemented, thankfully, some of the things we've worked on like getting security clearances to individuals within the states so if there is an attack, we can quickly respond to that. Getting communication state to state and between the federal government and the states, which was a weakness of 2016 - that's already been completed. We require that, but they've actually done that voluntarily.

The big piece that's still left there is working with the states to be able to get audits for their own elections to be able to make sure that we can verify that's the undone. But frankly, the longer we've worked on writing this piece of legislation, doing the hearings around it, a lot of the states have engaged with us in new ways to say, we agree we need to do these things. The administration's already done it voluntarily as well.

CHANG: But are there enough measures done yet? Senator Klobuchar, you are up for re-election this year. And as someone running for re-election, what concerns do you have about election security in your state?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, my state has been on the forefront. We have the highest voter turnout in the country. We've had a number of recounts that we've successfully completed. But we have 14 states in this nation that either have no backup paper ballot or partial backup paper ballots. And that has to change. So one of the things that our bill does is says if you want to be eligible for this federal funding - and we've already put 380 million out that's pretty much out to the states now. Forty-five states have the money.

But if you want to be eligible going forward, you're going to have to have backup paper ballots and some kind of audit so you can go back through and make sure that your election equipment is accurate. To think we don't have any requirements like that - and we can't really expect a state, say, the size of Arkansas to defend itself against a foreign power. We love our decentralized election system, but we have to be able to give them the support to protect them when you have a foreign adversary with the size and sophistication of Russia...

CHANG: Right.

KLOBUCHAR: ...Going after them.

CHANG: And we know that two of your fellow Democrats - Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire - they've acknowledged that their offices were targets of foreign cyberattacks. As far as you know...

KLOBUCHAR: Now, that was their...

CHANG: As far as you know, have you been targeted? You're up for re-election.

KLOBUCHAR: I don't know that. But I do want to emphasize that it's official offices that were targeted. And as far as James and I know and what we've learned, they didn't get through. And one of the things that we've done in the Senate is try as hard as we can to do the training. That training is going to be mandatory as of this year. And that also we make sure that we are doing everything. Every institution like the U.S. Senate, companies, government entities have these kinds of cyberattacks. And our country has to be ready not just for this but for protecting our power grid and protecting our business information.

CHANG: OK. But in order to be ready, there's the question of resources. I see that this bill doesn't call for any additional money. Senator Lankford, today on the floor I know that you voted against adding another $250 million for election security. Why is that?

LANKFORD: Well, because we just did $380 million to the states just four months ago. And that money is not all out the door. And the money that is out the door, the states have it, but they've not actually spent it. And we don't know how they're spending it. So before we add another quarter billion dollars to the states for their election, we don't know how the previous 380 million was done. So basic oversight would say the first tranche of that money is out.

And when we did our research on this a year ago to try to determine how much money was needed, the answer that came back to us was $380 million. That's - that is what is allotted. We don't know if that's enough. If that's not enough, we won't know for another year. So I wasn't willing to say, let's throw another quarter billion dollars at a problem when we don't know if we've already solved it or not.

CHANG: What about you, Senator Klobuchar? Do you agree that maybe we should just wait and see, or do you think that more money will definitely be needed behind these objectives?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, with this polarized atmosphere James and I worked really hard to get that 380 million. It didn't just - wasn't just a number on paper. It actually went out to the states, and they are in the process of spending it. I would like to see more right away. But right now we have to move forward, and that means passing the Secure Elections Act. We finally have a markup scheduled for our bill in the Rules Committee, and I'm the ranking member on that.

So James and our bill, it's going to go forward. It's going to go before that committee. I think we're going to get it marked up. And that means we go right to the floor. And that - if we can pass this bill, it really sends a message to all the states. Here's the best practices. This is what you - we expect you to do if you're going to get any more money. And it also sends a message to Vladimir Putin and the world that we are serious about protecting our democracy.

CHANG: Well, on the prospects of passing this bill, as well-intentioned as maybe the two of you may be, is Senate leadership behind this legislation? Senator Lankford, has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell committed to you that he will bring this to the floor? Is this a priority?

LANKFORD: He has not committed a date, but he and his team have been very engaged in this process as I've kept them informed. Anything that deals with elections obviously everyone wants to know, how's it work? What does it do? So his team has been very engaged. He has personally been very engaged on this issue. And he's given the green light for it to be able to go through the Rules Committee for a markup. So that sends the clear signal that he's ready to go on it. He's comfortable with the legislation, or it wouldn't be going through this markup process.

This is also something we've worked with every state leader around the country on. So the reason this bill has taken such a long time is because it affects so many different groups of people. We've spent the year trying to be able to get everyone engaged, everyone involved in the process. Everyone we think is now on board to be able to do it. And let's get it done.

CHANG: Well, is the White House on board? Is the White House taking this issue seriously enough? President Trump has repeatedly downplayed election security risks. What do you think, Senator Klobuchar? Is President Trump taking this issue seriously?

KLOBUCHAR: Of course I don't see it that way. I don't think he has. And he sent a negative message about this by kind of questioning every move when security issues are raised about Russia. And that moment where he stood side by side with Vladimir Putin - and you can never dial that back when he basically didn't call him in front of the world on what they had done to our election.

CHANG: I want...

KLOBUCHAR: Dan Coats, his security director, however, has said very clearly that this happened, that Russia is getting bolder, that we are starting to see - in his words, the lights are blinking red. So you do have the security people in the administration saying it's happening and it needs to be fixed. And that's why our goal here is to just move forward...

CHANG: OK. All right.

KLOBUCHAR: ...To let the Mueller investigation do its work, but then to move forward on a solution.

CHANG: That's Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma. Thank you both very much.

LANKFORD: You bet. Thank you.

KLOBUCHAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.