5 ways to fix our elections after reading the Mueller report
Special counsel Robert Mueller's report has generated enough legal, political and national security debate to dominate the news for a week now. What's been largely overlooked is the roadmap the report provides for filling cracks in the American political system.
A crucial element of the report is its richly detailed explanation of how Russia successfully exploited loopholes and vulnerabilities in the federal laws regulating money in politics and election security.
And yet the odds are long, at least in the short term, that the polarized and politically divided Congress will enact any policy legislation in reaction to Mueller's findings. But there are at least five steps lawmakers could take to protect their own campaigns from hacking and bolster the integrity of the American election system.
1. Allow campaigns free or low-cost cybersecurity assistance.
The report outlined how Russia "stole hundreds of thousands of documents from the compromised email accounts and networks" of the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election. It wasn't the first or last election-related hack of political documents: Hackers stole information from both the Barack Obama and John McCain campaigns in 2008, targeted Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, and numerous congressional candidates reported attempts to break into their networks during the 2018 midterm.
But with candidates hustling to raise every penny and hoping to dedicate as much as possible to swaying voters, few of them dedicate resources to sophisticated computer security software or in-house staff with the cybersecurity expertise to thwart hacking threats.
A nonprofit cybersecurity organization, Defending Digital Campaigns, has asked the Federal Election Commission for permission to provide free or discounted support to candidates of both parties and their party committees — which would require an exemption to campaign finance rules. The FEC has repeatedly delayed a vote on the request, which Congress could also grant through legislation.
2. Require on-ad disclosure for paid digital ads.
Russian saboteurs spent $100,000 on Facebook ads ahead of the 2016 election, many of which "explicitly supported or opposed a presidential candidate," the report says.
Explicitly advocating for or against a candidate is known as "express advocacy." Broadcast ads require a "paid for by" disclosure, but the requirement doesn't apply to digital ads. That's partly because the law was written before campaigns and outside groups started relying on online messaging in their campaigns, creating a stronger argument for such additional disclosure.
3. Expand the 'electioneering communications' definition.
If requiring such "paid for by" disclaimers on digital ads is one step toward transparency — which could expose not only foreign interference but also the sources of routine campaign spending — the next could be requiring outside groups to report digital ad spending on "electioneering communications."
These are broadcast ads that mention a candidate and air near an election but don't expressly say who to vote for or against. Electioneering communications appearing as digital ads don't have to be reported to the FEC, which provides less oversight over who's buying these ads. Many of Russia's online ads fell under this category.
4. Reverse the IRS rule change on nonprofit donor disclosure.
Politically active nonprofits spend millions to influence elections but are not compelled to reveal their donors to the public. Until last year, they at least had to report to the IRS but then Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the IRS was dropping that disclosure requirement.
The Mueller report doesn't directly address this so-called dark money, or how foreign nationals might now be able to donate large secret sums to influence campaigns. Mueller's team did, however, spend two years investigating how a foreign government interfered in U.S. elections from the shadows.
In January, Democrat John Tester of Montana reintroduced a Senate bill that would reverse Mnuchin's move. His so-called Spotlight Act narrowly passed the Senate in December but never saw a House vote.
5. Give states and localities more money for election security.
The Mueller report details how Russia infiltrated the emails and computer networks of unwitting election administrators and the companies that supply voting machines and registration software across the country.
"Victims included U.S. state and local entities, such as state boards of elections (SBOEs), secretaries of state, and county governments, as well as individuals who worked for those entities," the report says. Russian hackers also "targeted private technology firms responsible for manufacturing and administering election-related software and hardware, such as voter registration software and electronic polling stations."
Congress approved $380 million last year to upgrade local election security, but state officials have told Capitol Hill the funding is insufficient and have pressed for an even bigger appropriation in the coming budget, the last before the 2020 election.
An increasing number of the country's largest publicly traded companies are disclosing more than ever about political spending habits that the law permits them to keep secret.
That's the central finding of the fifth annual report from a group of academics and corporate ethicists, who say the average score among the biggest companies traded on American exchanges, the S&P 500, has gone up each year since 2014.
Though corporate political action committees must disclose their giving to candidates, those numbers are very often dwarfed by the donations businesses make to the trade associations and other outside groups that have driven so much of the steady rise in spending on elections. Conservatives say robust disclosure of these behaviors is the best form of regulating money in politics and is working fine, and this new report reflects that. Those who say campaign finance needs more assertive federal regulation will argue such corporate transparency is inconsistent and inadequate to the task, and the new report underscores that.
A year from the presidential election, U.S. intelligence agencies have adopted a new framework for how they will inform candidates, groups and the public about attempts to disrupt our country's elections by foreign operatives.
But the one-page summary of the plan, released late last week, is so general that it remains unclear what the intelligence community plans to do if and when it discovers something suspicious.
The summary by the director of national intelligence states that the federal government will "follow a process and principles designed to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that notification decisions are consistent, well-informed and unbiased."
The new framework is designed to prevent a repeat of some of what happened after the 2016 election.