The following editorial originally appeared in the Vancouver (Wash.) Columbian.
There is little doubt that foreign actors worked to influence the 2016 presidential election — and that they have set their sights on the 2020 election.
U.S. intelligence agencies have detailed those efforts, and a 448-page report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller determined “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” While the report did not find prosecutable coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian agents, it stressed the need to improve election security before 2020.
One method for enhancing that security is The Honest Ads Act of 2019 (H.R. 2592), introduced by Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash. The proposal has bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, was an early co-sponsor. The legislation would make online political ads beholden to the same disclosure requirements as ads sold through traditional media such as newspapers and TV stations.
“We know foreign entities bought ads, and without any disclosure requirements they got away with it,” Kilmer told The (Tacoma) News Tribune. The bill would require online ads to include disclaimers saying who paid for them, but would not limit content.
Critics suggest that such legislation would stifle free speech. By requiring disclosures or requiring political action committees to reveal their donors, critics argue, political opinions could be muzzled. When Washington imposed transparency requirements last year, Google suspended running political ads in the state prior to the midterm elections.
Those are valid concerns that must be hashed out with robust debate in Congress. But it is clear that a repeat of the misinformation campaign that pocked the 2016 election is unacceptable. American democracy has been undermined by influencers spreading falsehoods and exploiting wedge issues.
Congress must take urgent action to rehabilitate that democracy, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has been reluctant to admit that we have a problem. McConnell repeatedly has blocked legislation that would provide funding for securing election systems, and in 2017 he blocked a previous version of The Honest Ads Act. The actions have earned him the derisive nickname of “Moscow Mitch” as he repeatedly ignores the threat of meddling from Russia and other nations.
As Kilmer said: “We’re an 18th century body using 20th century technology and trying to solve 21st century problems.”
Meanwhile, the fragility of the nation’s election system is further highlighted by the essential collapse of the Federal Election Commission. The commission is supposed to have six members, but the resignation of one member last month reduced the number to three, leaving the board unable to conduct investigations or hand out fines. At a time when our democracy is facing unprecedented threats, the watchdog has no bite.
President Trump and Congress should move quickly to restore the FEC to full strength and provide the public with some assurance that federal elections are secure and fair. Thus far, however, neither Trump nor McConnell has demonstrated much interest in protecting a system that is the very foundation of our nation.
Amid the inevitable debates about health care and the economy and gun control, election security could be the most pressing underlying issue in next year’s election. Unlike differences of policy, a lack of security and a repeat of outside influence would threaten the future of the country.