On Wednesday, the Senate voted 52–48 to acquit President Donald Trump of abuse of power in his efforts to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden. As special counsel Robert Mueller and others have testified, the threats to the 2020 election were already grave. The issues revealed during the impeachment trial regarding foreign interference, though, bring us closer to a dangerously undefended 2020 election. Even before a single vote was counted in the Democratic primary race, Trump had already invited multiple countries to investigate Biden. In 2016, he invited Russia to hack the emails of his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Within hours, they attempted to do so. Now, if we are to defend our elections from foreign influence, it is imperative that we pressure the same Senate that just voted to ignore Trump’s Ukraine malfeasance to immediately take up legislation that would protect the 2020 vote.
Of course, there are other threats to the integrity of this year’s elections beyond presidential-coerced election interference. Judges in states like Georgia and Wisconsin have ordered mass purges of state voter lists in response to Republican lawsuits. Although we know that foreign interests attempted to hack the voting systems of more than two dozen states in 2016, those states and the public have learned little about the extent to which those attempts were successful—and even less about the methods used to penetrate the systems in particular counties.
Social media has raised the stakes as well. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, whose platform was used and manipulated by Russia to target voters with disinformation in 2016—with an extra emphasis placed on targeting black voters—recently announced, despite entreaties and pressure from civil rights groups, that the platform would maintain a loophole for politicians that renders them exempt from Facebook’s ban on election misinformation. This dangerous policy incentivizes domestic politicians to spread viral messages that promote voter suppression.
This will also be the second presidential election in 50 years conducted without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, as a result of the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case. This leaves open the specter of last-minute polling place changes and voter purges dangerously close to Election Day.
If we are to avoid a catastrophically vulnerable election this year, we will need to move quickly and decisively. Multiple election protection bills have passed the House of Representatives and now sit on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a location known as “the legislative graveyard.” McConnell must—and can—be made to feel the pressure to actually defend our elections.
Key among these bills is the SHIELD Act. Sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the SHIELD Act would prohibit the exchange of campaign information between candidates and foreign governments, create a duty to report to the FBI and the Federal Election Commission offers of assistance from foreign governments and their agents, prohibit deceptive practices and false information about voting procedures, and require transparency for online political advertisements.
Those Republican senators, like Lamar Alexander and Marco Rubio, who acknowledge that President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign against a foreign government to interfere in our election was at a minimum “inappropriate,” should embrace the SHIELD Act to ensure that similar conduct will not be undertaken by this or any other president. Indeed, Sen. Rubio co-sponsored a bill early last year that would have imposed strict prohibitions on foreign interference in our elections and included harsh sanctions for countries that attempt to influence U.S. elections. Notably, Rubio has subsequently fallen silent on this bill. Likewise, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee—Republican and Democrat—who issued a report last year documenting the efforts of foreign nationals and foreign interests to infiltrate and undermine the integrity of our elections should be enthusiastic supporters of the SHIELD Act. This bill must move quickly to a vote. Emboldened by his acquittal, there is no telling what actions Trump may undertake behind the scenes to encourage further foreign influence, or on public platforms to sow discord and promote disinformation about our elections.
Again, McConnell must be compelled to take up this bill. This is not an impossible feat. It is worth remembering that, last fall, McConnell quietly acquiesced to pressure to bring to a vote a measure designed to provide millions of dollars for states to upgrade their election systems and undertake protective measures from hacking and other nefarious efforts. The bill provides $200 million less than originally sought by its sponsors, but ultimately $425 million is available for states to carry out these critical measures. McConnell’s movement on the bill came after widespread condemnation of his inaction and after the derisive moniker “Moscow Mitch” went viral on social media. Implementation of that legislation at the state level is also an imperative, but the forced vote in the Senate offers a model for moving forward on the SHIELD Act.
None of this will happen without pressure from voters. We have now reached the point that the very legitimacy of the 2020 elections is at risk. The threats emanate from forces both foreign and domestic. Voters in every state, and every senator—no matter their party or ideology—should have a common interest in free and fair elections. Without them, our country is a democracy in name only.
Senators who voted to acquit Trump argued that the 2020 election is the appropriate forum to determine whether he should be removed from office. They contend that “the people” must have the opportunity to express their will. These same senators must be called upon to prove that this argument was not merely another move in a cynical political shell game. And, if there are United States senators who are not prepared to fight for the integrity of our election system outside of the context of an impeachment trial, then voters need to know, sooner rather than later, who they are.
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