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Expert Brief

The Mueller Report Exposed Weaknesses in U.S. Democratic Institutions that H.R. 1 Would Address

H.R. 1 addresses many serious vulnerabilities in American democratic institutions that were documented in the Mueller Report.

Published: July 10, 2019

“There were multiple, system­atic efforts to inter­fere in our elec­tion . . . That alleg­a­tion deserves the atten­tion of every Amer­ican.”

This was Special Coun­sel Robert Mueller’s conclu­sion after conduct­ing a two-year invest­ig­a­tion into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elec­tion. His report high­lighted seri­ous gaps in U.S. law that have left our elec­tions vulner­able to foreign inter­fer­ence, which Russia and other foreign powers will almost certainly seek to exploit again in 2020. It also docu­mented numer­ous poten­tial viol­a­tions of campaign finance and ethics rules and, in Volume II, a sustained effort by the pres­id­ent to inter­fere in the special coun­sel’s invest­ig­a­tion.

Despite these grave conclu­sions, there is good news. Many of the worst prob­lems docu­mented in the Mueller Report would be addressed by H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2019, a sweep­ing demo­cracy reform pack­age passed by the House of Repres­ent­at­ives earlier this year. The trans­form­at­ive changes in H.R. 1 would make our elect­oral system more fair, demo­cratic, and respons­ive to the prior­it­ies of all Amer­ic­ans. They include auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, which could add 50 million new voters to the rolls; small donor public finan­cing, which would reshape the way campaigns are funded and amplify the voices of ordin­ary Amer­ic­ans; and redis­trict­ing reform to curtail anti­demo­cratic partisan gerry­man­der­ing. The pack­age also encom­passes a number of provi­sions that would directly respond to the vulner­ab­il­it­ies high­lighted in the Mueller Report, and blunt future efforts by Russia and others to exploit them.

Here is an over­view of the vulner­ab­il­it­ies docu­mented by the special coun­sel that H.R.1 would address:

Disin­form­a­tion and Propa­ganda: Among the special coun­sel’s most well-known find­ings was his conclu­sion that Russia engaged in a concer­ted disin­form­a­tion and propa­ganda campaign over the Inter­net to stoke discord among the U.S. elect­or­ate, suppress voter turnout, and, even­tu­ally, promote the candid­acy of Donald Trump. Russi­a’s tactics under­mined the basic premise that our campaigns involve real debates among Amer­ic­ans about issues and candid­ates. Its strategy was success­ful in part because of gaps in U.S. campaign finance law that leave most paid polit­ical ads over the Inter­net unreg­u­lated, as well as the fail­ure of our evenly-divided and grid­locked national campaign finance regu­lator, the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion (FEC), to enforce exist­ing rules. All signs point to Russia and other hostile state actors like Iran employ­ing these tactics again ahead of the 2020 vote. To blunt this threat, H.R. 1 would:

  • Close major campaign finance loop­holes related to disclos­ure and the prohib­i­tion on campaign spend­ing by foreign nation­als.
  • Require major online plat­forms to create publicly access­ible online data­bases of requests to purchase Inter­net polit­ical ads.
  • Over­haul the FEC to curtail grid­lock and stream­line enforce­ment of campaign finance rules.

Weak Elec­tion Secur­ity and Infra­struc­ture: The Mueller Report also found that Russian intel­li­gence agents targeted vulner­able elec­tion infra­struc­ture and private compan­ies that provide states with elec­tion tech­no­logy, allow­ing them to hack into a voter regis­tra­tion data­base, the network of at least one Flor­ida county, and a private elec­tions vendor. These attacks were almost certainly a dry run for future oper­a­tions that could disrupt U.S. elec­tions and call into ques­tion their results. To address this grave danger, H.R. 1 would:

  • Replace paper­less voting systems with machines that provide a paper record of each vote.
  • Provide fund­ing to cash-strapped elec­tion juris­dic­tions to replace anti­quated voting systems.
  • Fund risk-limit­ing audits to ensure the accur­acy of elec­tronic vote tally­ing.
  • Impose federal regu­lat­ory safe­guards on private elec­tion systems and soft­ware vendors.
  • Expand early voting to decrease the pres­sure on Elec­tion Day poll work­ers and allow early detec­tion of poten­tial threats.

Voter Suppres­sion: The special coun­sel found evid­ence of Russian-controlled social media accounts specific­ally target­ing African-Amer­ic­ans and other minor­ity communit­ies. These accounts spread messages to discour­age target communit­ies from voting, includ­ing messages that contained false inform­a­tion about when, where, and how to vote. Such tactics are a perni­cious form of voter suppres­sion, one that is likely to play an even bigger role in future elec­tion inter­fer­ence oper­a­tions. To address this prob­lem, H.R. 1 would:

  • Boost trans­par­ency and other safe­guards for online polit­ical ads.
  • Ban the use of decept­ive prac­tices for voter suppres­sion.
  • Require elec­tion offi­cials to take concrete steps to coun­ter­act the dissem­in­a­tion of mislead­ing inform­a­tion about the voting process.

Direct Foreign Assist­ance to Campaigns: The Mueller Report also docu­mented Russian attempts to directly assist the Trump campaign in viol­a­tion of U.S. law. Campaign offi­cials were at times recept­ive to these over­tures (such as in the infam­ous Trump Tower meet­ing between senior campaign staff and Russian nation­als claim­ing to have “incrim­in­at­ing” inform­a­tion about Hillary Clin­ton). The report also discussed at length the activ­it­ies of campaign offi­cials who were unre­gistered agents of foreign govern­ments. In both cases, weak enforce­ment of exist­ing rules meant there was no incent­ive to comply with crit­ical laws designed to curb foreign influ­ence over Amer­ica’s polit­ical system. To remedy this prob­lem, H.R. 1 would:

  • Over­haul the FEC to boost enforce­ment of campaign finance rules, includ­ing the prohib­i­tion on foreign assist­ance to campaigns.
  • Shore up enforce­ment of the Foreign Agents Regis­tra­tion Act (FARA).

Conflicts of Interest: The Mueller Report also described vari­ous Russia-connec­ted busi­ness deal­ings of the pres­id­ent and other campaign offi­cials, includ­ing nego­ti­ations over the possible construc­tion of a new Trump Tower in Moscow. Now that Pres­id­ent Trump is in office (and has refused to divest from his busi­nesses), such ties create an ongo­ing risk of govern­ment poli­cy—in­clud­ing sens­it­ive rela­tions with foreign govern­ment­s—be­ing driven by personal finan­cial consid­er­a­tions rather than the public interest. Even the appear­ance that this is happen­ing can further erode public trust in govern­ment insti­tu­tions. To address risks posed by the busi­ness deal­ings described in the Mueller Report, H.R. 1 would, among other things:

  • Require the pres­id­ent and vice pres­id­ent to divest from all finan­cial interests that pose conflicts of interest.
  • Require the pres­id­ent, vice pres­id­ent, and candid­ates for those offices to disclose their tax returns.
  • Impose basic ethics stand­ards for pres­id­en­tial trans­itions.
  • Strengthen the agency that over­sees ethics regu­la­tion in the Exec­ut­ive Branch, the Office of Govern­ment Ethics (OGE).

Obstruc­tion of Justice: Finally, Volume II of the Mueller Report docu­mented the pres­id­ent’s efforts to stop or other­wise inter­fere with the special coun­sel’s invest­ig­a­tion, includ­ing through pres­sure placed on then-Attor­ney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself from over­see­ing the invest­ig­a­tion. These find­ings raise funda­mental ques­tions about the role of senior govern­ment offi­cials when confron­ted with a pres­id­ent determ­ined to thwart an ongo­ing invest­ig­a­tion into his own conduct. To begin to address this prob­lem, H.R. 1 would:

  • Require pres­id­en­tial appointees to refrain from any involve­ment in specific matters concern­ing the pres­id­ent or their spouse.
  • Give OGE final author­ity over waivers of ethics rules, includ­ing rules that require recusal.

Russi­a’s inter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion and the other abuses docu­mented in the Mueller Report have exposed seri­ous vulner­ab­il­it­ies in Amer­ica’s demo­cratic insti­tu­tions. H.R. 1 addresses many of these prob­lems, as docu­mented below. Enact­ing this legis­la­tion would help blunt future attempts by Russia and others to under­mine Amer­ican sover­eignty and the integ­rity of our govern­ment.

The House passed H.R. 1 in March of this year, and the Senate compan­ion was intro­duced that same month. However, no Senate vote has been sched­uled. The Senate should imme­di­ately take up and pass this historic pack­age of reforms.

To read the full Bren­nan Center analysis, click here.

The follow­ing Bren­nan Center experts are avail­able for addi­tional consulta­tion:

Wendy R. Weiser, Vice Pres­id­ent for Demo­cracy

Daniel I. Weiner, Senior Coun­sel, Demo­cracy Program

Spen­cer P. Boyer, Director, Wash­ing­ton Office

For media inquir­ies, contact: Alex­an­dra Ringe; alex­an­dra.ringe@nyu.edu; 646–925–8744