Mueller: “They’re doing it as we sit here!”

Small “d” democracy

By Mark Lurinsky

Special counsel Robert Muller worried aloud during his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee that the Trump campaign’s openness to accepting Russian assistance during our 2016 elections would become “the new normal”.  Then a few moments later, he exclaimed to chairman Adam Schiff that the Russians are continuing to interfere in our elections “as we sit here.”

All 50 state election systems probably targeted

Less than twenty-four hours after Mueller’s testimony, the Senate Intelligence Committee, released its own 67-page bipartisan report on Russian interference.  That report concluded that in addition to the types of attacks that the Mueller report highlighted, Russian intelligence services were specifically active in attempting to infiltrate our election infrastructure - the actual systems that allow citizens to vote.  In fact, the Senate committee reported that this type of infiltration has probably been targeting all 50 states in some manner.[i]

Voting Machines

The Senate committee report stated that hackers from the GRU, the Russian military intelligence, significantly infiltrated 21 states in 2016 with varying degrees of success.  In Illinois, as of the end of 2018, “Russian cyber actors had successfully penetrated [the state] voter registration database, viewed multiple database tables, and accessed up to 200,000 registration records.”  The hackers were able to take out “an unknown quantity of voter registration data” and “were in a position to delete or change voter data.”

Michael Daniels, the White House cybersecurity coordinator under President Obama, told the Senate committee that the Russian 2016 appeared to him to be reconnaissance, “to do the network mapping… so that you could actually understand the [states’] network, establish a presence so you could come back later and actually execute an operation.”

Consistent with the unanimous findings of the national intelligence agencies, the Senate committee concluded that Russia’s activities were part of an “overarching goal:  undermining the integrity of elections and American confidence in democracy.”

“Moscow Mitch”?

The other big related political development in the wake of Mueller’s testimony and the Senate intelligence report is that the persistent questions about Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader’s role in blocking common sense election security measures have gone viral, with the hashtag “MoscowMitchMcTreason” trending on Twitter. 

While McConnell is attempting to defend his blockade of virtually every election security bill by crying “partisanship” by Democrats, who he accuses of trying to “federalize” our federal elections[ii], both the bipartisan support in the Senate for several of the blocked bills and the nature of the bills themselves, which provide larger amounts of national support to state’s own efforts, belie this. The bottom line appears to be that McConnell, who has prided himself on being the “grim reaper” of bills he doesn’t like by relegating them to a Senate “legislative graveyard”, has simply said No to election security[iii].  

McConnell, who has largely been joined at the hip with Donald Trump since the 2016 elections, is having great trouble coming up with any more coherent explanation for his opposition to election security than that Trump does not want any measure on his desk which may call further attention to the Russians’ role in his election.

Moreover, with regard to Russia, it is worth recalling that once U.S. intelligence agencies started to find convincing evidence that Moscow was intervening in the elections, in September 2016, it was McConnell who attempted to cast doubt about the veracity of the information, and he made clear during a private briefing of Congressional leaders by then Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and others that he would object to any effort by the Obama White House to challenge the Russians publicly for their interference.

The Star Ledger editors and others have also pointed to the possibly more direct connections of McConnell himself to Russian oligarchs, like the recent $200 million investment of Rusal,  Oleg Deripaska’s Russian aluminum company, has made in McConnell’s home state after McConnell used parliamentary maneuvers to lift U.S. restriction on the Russian business earlier this year[iv]

Either way, McConnell’s claims to be defending America’s interests rather than those of foreign agents are wearing extremely thin here.

Strengthening our elections

Mueller’s sharp warning about ongoing Russian attacks and the bipartisan Senate committee report have combined to give new urgency to the efforts in Congress to take immediate measures to shore up our voting and elections in advance of 2020 and another likely onslaught.

While the House has already passed various significant measures addressing different aspects of the threats revealed by the two reports in its omnibus H.R.1 For the People Act, on the Senate side at least eight separate bills – both Democratic-sponsored and bipartisan efforts – are currently sitting bottled up by McConnell:

These include:

  • The Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections Act (S. 1562, sponsored by Mark Warner, D-VA), which requires all candidates for federal offices to report any foreign campaign-related contacts to the Federal Election Commission, which would disclose them.
  • The Honest Ads Act (S. 1356, sponsored by Amy Kobluchar, D-MN, Lindsay Graham, R-SC and Warner), which would require social media organizations like Facebook to disclose the donors behind political advertising in the same manner that print media, TV and radio are required to do.
  • State and Local Government Cybersecurity Act of 2019 (S. 1846, sponsored by Kobluchar, Gary Peters, D-MI, Ron Johnson, R-WI, and James Lankford, R-OK), to allow for greater cooperation and support, including grants, to come from the federal Department of Homeland Security to state and local government to shore up their elections.
  • The SAFE Act (S. 2053, sponsored by Kobluchar), which provides federal grants to upgrade state voting systems and the Protecting American Votes and Elections Act of 2019 (S. 1472, The “PAVE Act”, sponsored by Ron Wyden, D-OR, H.R. 2754 in the House). Both bills establish requirements to use individual, durable, “voter-verified” paper ballots and other heightened security features.[v]
  • The Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2019 (S. 482, sponsored by Lindsay Graham, R-SC and Bob Menendez, D-NJ, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair and ranking member, and others), which would exact more severe sanctions on Russia for further attempts at interference in our elections.

Jersey needs secure voting machines!

No discussion here about election security would be complete without noting that as of today New Jersey is one of the states with an insecure voting system. Our current aging voting machines are not capable of producing a voter-verifiable paper trail for audits and recounts.  In the next two years, our counties must move to either hybrid “ballot marking device” machines, or to a hand-marked paper ballot system which is recommended as the most secure and least costly by election security computer experts like Princeton Professor Andrew Appel.  BlueWaveNJ, partnering with SOMA Action and other grassroots groups, has begun to sound the alarm on the immediate need for secure election equipment.   Please join us in demanding secure elections in our state.  For or more information on BlueWaveNJ’s Electoral Reform Working Group, please contact [email protected]

Mark Lurinsky has been an activist on matters of public policy since 1968. He is currently a member of BlueWaveNJ’s Electoral Reform Working Group and is co-chair of the Healthcare Committee.

Under the blog title Small “d” democracy, Mark will continue to weigh in on the current issues that define how our country can become a more just, equal, and democratic society.

[i] The Mueller report itself, on pages 50-51 of Volume I, also briefly discussed the Russians’ Intrusions Targeting the Administration of U.S. Elections, but it appears that the Senate intelligence committee conducted a much more detailed investigation of this specific subject.  The current report from the committee, Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure, which is very heavily redacted at the insistence of federal intelligence agencies, is the first of an expected five volumes on related subjects, some of which will overlap with the work of the Mueller investigation.

Mueller’s report (in Volume I) mainly focused on Moscow’s large scale efforts to have its agents pose on line as Americans with posts to Facebook, Twitter and other social media to disparage Hillary Clinton and praise Trump, and to steal Democratic e-mails and release them strategically during the campaign to influence American voters.

[ii] The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, among others, points out on Twitter that McConnell’s only substantive argument against the election security bill boils down to “states’ rights – the same argument used against the Voting Rights Act.”  But, of course, “we need national standards for national elections.”

[iii] In May, Roy Blunt (R-MO), who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, seems to have given away McConnell’s game on this, when he told McClatchy News that the House’s For the People Act is “just not going to go to the [Senate] floor,” and “neither is any other bill that opens the door to these issues.  Leader gets to decide that, and he has made it clear.”

[iv] The Mueller report, in Volume I, page 131, describes Deripaska as “a Russian oligarch who has a global empire involving aluminum and power companies and who is closely aligned with Vladimir Putin”. The report details that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who pled guilty last year and has begun serving 7 ½ years in prison for illegally laundering some $60 million through offshore accounts and other crimes, worked for Deripaska in Ukraine from 2006 through 2016.  Trump’s deputy campaign manager Richard Gates told the Mueller team that during the Trump campaign Manafort instructed him to pass internal Trump polling data and other private campaign information along to be shared with Ukrainian oligarchs, which presumably included Deripaska.  It is just a small logical step beyond the public record to conclude that these pro-Putin Ukrainian contacts in turn passed along such information to Moscow, where it was utilized in the Kremlin’s attack on our election.

[v] A particularly key part of both proposals is to require paper ballots as the main system or as a back-up system, to cut opportunities for hacking of computerized voting machines, and to mandate routine audits, in line with the best practices recommended by the nation’s election security computer scientists.  The PAVE Act has been endorsed nationally by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the Brennan Center for Justice and others.