Politics & Government

Facing pressure, McConnell backs money for election security

Under fire from the left and the right, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday he’ll back a measure to give states another $250 million to upgrade their voting systems to fend off foreign intervention.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has maintained for months that Democratic election security proposals are largely a sham, announced the move on the Senate floor on Thursday, saying he was “proud” to have helped develop the amendment to a federal spending bill.

“The Trump administration has made enormous strides to help states secure their elections without giving Washington new power to push the states around,” McConnell said. “That’s how we continue the progress we saw in 2018 and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said the money is “not a substitute” for passing more sweeping election security measures.

He called it a start, noting that is similar to an amendment Democrats offered last year to help states harden their election systems against foreign government interference.

“Maybe, just maybe, they are starting to come around to our view that election security is necessary; that if Americans don’t believe their elections are on the up-and-up, woe is us as a country and as a democracy,” Schumer said. “It is not all the money we requested, and it doesn’t include a single solitary reform that virtually everyone knows we need, but it’s a start.”

The turnabout comes after critics began calling McConnell “Moscow Mitch” for his opposition. Thursday, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, quipped his surprise: “No more invitations to the Kremlin for him.”

Republicans and Democrats in Congress largely agree that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, but McConnell has been reluctant to take up any election-related legislation.

Other Republicans have blamed Democrats for overreaching when the House, which Democrats control, passed a sweeping election bill that McConnell said would federalize elections. The Senate has not taken up the bill.

But conservative groups have begun sounding the alarm, with a Republican-affiliated group last month increasing pressure on McConnell to put election security legislation up for a vote in the Senate. Republicans for the Rule of Law ran ads that targeted McConnell, who faces re-election next year, and four other Republican senators in their home states.

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and Freedomworks President Adam Brandon joined the call Wednesday, urging McConnell to put up money for states to be able to buy paper ballots and conduct independent audits.

McConnell has also blocked various proposals that have Republican support and his refusal to take up the legislation led MSNBC Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough, a former Florida Republican congressman, to dub McConnell “Moscow Mitch.” That prompted McConnell to hotly defend his record on Russia.

McConnell has pointed to what he says are “significant steps” taken by the Trump administration to defend against election meddling. He also noted the Senate has passed election security legislation since the 2016 election, including giving the Department of Justice more tools to investigate and prosecute individuals who hack into election systems.

Democrats have suggested McConnell doesn’t want to take up the legislation because it would embarrass President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly cast doubt on whether Russia interfered in the election, despite a unified assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies that it did.

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over election security legislation, dismissed suggestions that McConnell had changed his mind.

He told reporters that McConnell has said recently that the Senate would spend money to shore up election systems if it was necessary. The House has proposed $600 million in election assistance to the states.

Blunt said he expected Democrats will continue to accuse Senate Republicans of failing to do enough to prevent Russian interference.

“Some Democrats won’t stop talking about it even when they know the problem has been solved,” said Blunt, a former Missouri secretary of state. “This is too good a political issue to talk about.”

Stand Up America, a progressive group that has targeted McConnell with digital ads and a billboard, said the senator’s support was encouraging but that “states have made it clear that they need far more funding to upgrade outdated voting systems and ensure voter-verified paper ballots.”

Schumer noted there were a number of bills with support from both Democrats and Republicans that look to counter foreign intervention.

That includes a bill sponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida and Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland which would impose stiff sanctions on Russia’s banking, energy and defense industries if there was evidence of election meddling.

Van Hollen said he and Rubio are hoping to get the legislation included in an upcoming national defense bill.

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.