“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
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