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How to protect U.S. elections against foreign interference

Russian President Vladimir Putin  shaking hands with

Russian President Vladimir Putin  shaking hands with President Donald J. Trump during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan on June 28, 2019.  Photo Credit: RUSSIAN PRES PRESS OFFICE/HANDOU/RUSSIAN PRES PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In the wake of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony to Congress, Democrats and Republicans continue to argue about whether or not there was collusion or complicity; whether or not justice was obstructed; and what is the legal definition of the word “exonerate.” But there’s a lot more at stake if we allow those arguments to eclipse our national security.

We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Russian manipulation of elections is a clear and present danger. The Kremlin did it to us during the 2016 presidential election. The Russians are doing it to us again. And on Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee reported that election systems in all 50 states were targeted by Russia in 2016 in its efforts to interfere in our election.

It’s time to galvanize bipartisan consensus to act. And there’s a way to achieve it.

Right now, according to Congress.gov, 34 bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to enhance election security. Some won’t go anywhere. Some could. House Democrats have already passed the Securing America’s Federal Elections Act, but it’s blocked in the Senate. Each of these measures -- Democratic and Republican alike -- have components worthy of consideration.

That’s why Congress should form a bipartisan select committee on election security and have immediate hearings on bills. The committee should not be permitted to get into partisan jockeying about the political implications of the Mueller investigation. It should only focus on what must be done to protect your vote in the future.

The committee should have 100 days to present omnibus legislation to the House. It shouldn’t matter whether it contains Democratic or Republican measures. Anything that effectively strengthens our intelligence, surveillance and counter-intelligence measures should be included. State and county election officials should be asked to assist in developing measures to protect their individual systems.

The bill should be presented for an up-or-down vote. No poison pills, no “gotcha” amendments. It’s not fool-proof: there are plenty of ways to hinder the bill. Republicans could withhold enough votes to undermine its credibility, which is why the bill must include Republican measures. 

There’s precedence for using this kind of mechanism to break through gridlock. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission is an independent panel created to evaluate which military installations should be consolidated or closed. Under the process, Congress has a certain period of time to either approve or disapprove the list. (In 2014, the House Armed Services Committee refused to authorize future rounds of BRAC.)

It’s entirely possible that Donald Trump could have won the Electoral College even without Moscow’s influence. But that’s like saying we didn’t need to understand the attack on Pearl Harbor because we still would have won World War II. One attack used bombs and bullets. The other used bytes and trolls. Both were aimed at the essence of democracy.

Many of my Republican friends in Congress argue that we must move on from the Mueller investigation. But it would be a dereliction of duty to leave behind, with no action, the frightening core of the probe's findings: Democracy is under attack.

On day one, the very first official act by every member of Congress is to raise his or her hand and take a solemn oath to protect and defend the Constitution. It’s time to act on that pledge, because no one, and no one’s partisan impulses, are above that oath.

Steve Israel, who represented Long Island for 16 years in the House of Representatives, directs the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University.

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