Top-priority election security bills thwarted anew by Senate GOP
Two bills at the heart of congressional Democrats' agenda for securing next year's election have run into a formal roadblock at the hands of the Republicans running the Senate.
One measure would require disclosure of the organizations or people paying for the political advertising that's already flooding online platforms, with the goal of exposing those who would sully the 2020 campaign with disinformation. The other would authorize federal spending of $1 billion to repel another wave of voter registration and election equipment hacking attempts similar to the widespread interference tried by the Russians last time.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reluctantly agreed last month to get behind $250 million in election security grants to states, but he's vowed to block all other more expansive policy legislation. And so his deputies carried out his wishes Tuesday when a pair of Democratic senators went to the floor and sought permission to pass their favored bills.
First, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asked for a vote on the so-called Honest Ads Act, which she wrote to require social media companies to disclose the buyers of political ads on their platforms and ensure the buyers are not foreign entities. The bill has a Republican co-sponsor in Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and a clutch of GOP backers in the House as well.
"There are many other bills that I'll come back and discuss in the next few weeks which would help on foreign influence in our elections," the presidential candidate said, "but today I want to focus on this one because election security is national security, and it's well past time we take action."
Klobuchar introduced a rare note about democracy reform into last week's presidential debate, when she urged passage of her measure before the next election to prevent social media companies from running political ads "without having to say where those ads came from and who paid for them."
She quipped that rubles paid for part of the 2016 campaign ad wars, a reference to Russia's buying spots on Facebook designed to prop up Donald Trump's candidacy and run down Hillary Clinton.
Also during the debate, Klobuchar pushed for "paper ballots in every single state," which would be mandated under the $1 billion election security aid package. Its advancement was blocked by the GOP after Minority Whip Dick Durbin asked for an immediate vote.
The efforts by Democratic senators to occasionally ask formally for a vote on their bills, knowing they'll be denied by the GOP leadership, are part of a strategy of applying steady public pressure on McConnell to reverse course.
Democrats first tried in June, just as special counsel Robert Mueller was testifying across Capitol Hill that Russians were attempting to interfere in the next elections "as we sit here." His report detailed Russia's efforts to use both social media disinformation and hacking to tilt the 2016 contest in Trump's favor.
The Democrats in control of the House, meanwhile, have passed a pair of ambitious election security bills this year that are on the roster of measures McConnell is blocking. The House is on course to pass a third such bill this week.
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In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.