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.
The Federal Election Commission has once again punted on establishing rules for identifying who is sponsoring online political advertisements. Thursday marked the fourth consecutive meeting in which the topic fell to the wayside without a clear path forward.
FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub revived debate on the topic in June when she introduced a proposal on how to regulate online political ads. In her proposal, she said the growing threat of misinformation meant that requiring transparency for political ads was "a small but necessary step."
Vice Chairman Matthew Petersen and Commissioner Caroline Hunter put forth their own proposal soon after Weintraub, but the commissioners have failed to find any middle ground. At Thursday's meeting, a decision on the agenda item was pushed off to a later date.
Weintraub's proposal says the funding source should be clearly visible on the face of the ad, with some allowance for abbreviations. But Petersen and Hunter want to allow more flexibility for tiny ads that cannot accommodate these disclaimers due to space.
The California Supreme Court is fast-tracking its review of a challenge to a new law that would require President Trump to make public his tax returns in order to get on the state's ballot for the 2020 election.
A lawsuit seeking to block implementation of the law was filed August 6 by the California Republican Party against Secretary of State Alex Padilla. It claims the law violates California's constitution.
Two other challenges, one filed by Trump's personal lawyers, are pending in federal court.