CULPEPER — Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger says she is gravely worried about the vulnerability of America’s elections to hackers and others who would do the nation harm.
From all indications, she knows whereof she speaks. Not long before her election to the U.S. House of Representatives in November’s midterms, she was a covert CIA officer, working abroad to thwart threats to our country.
Less than two weeks ago, the 7th District Democrat introduced legislation to improve the integrity of U.S. elections and mitigate foreign threats to the nation’s election infrastructure.
On Friday, her proposal became part of HR 1, Democrats’ comprehensive reform package they say will safeguard American democracy, strengthen voting rights and restore ethics and integrity in government.
“Based on my background with CIA, one of the things that’s incredibly important to me is that we ensure the security of our elections,” Spanberger said in a phone interview Friday after HR 1 passed the House along party lines. “Fundamentally, we have to do that.”
That is why she introduced her proposal both as a free-standing bill, the Strengthening Elections through Intelligence Act, and as an amendment to HR 1, the wide-ranging For the People Act put forth in the House by its new Democratic majority.
“Frankly, the states, which run our elections, don’t necessarily always have the tools to know what threats are out there and how they might address them,” Spanberger said. “My amendment is a pretty straightforward one: We want to give those tools to the states.”
Both her amendment and her bill would require the federal government to assess cyber, terror and state-actor threats to the security of America’s election systems.
Both would instruct the U.S. director of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security to brief state and federal officials on vulnerabilities and recommend how best to avert threats. The intelligence chief’s report, written with DHS and the federal Election Assistance Commission, would be due six months before a November general election.
Spanberger said she is using a two-track strategy in hope that those provisions will become law.
“So, ultimately, if HR 1 doesn’t pass in the Senate ... we are going to pursue this bill,” she said.
In a statement on Feb. 28 when she introduced her bill, Spanberger’s office noted that Russian agents tapped into the networks of multiple state and local electoral boards, according to a January 2017 assessment from the director of national intelligence, the senior-most official overseeing the nation’s many intelligence agencies. Those cyberattacks reportedly stole voter records, scanned networks and breached voter-registration databases in “deliberate attempts to undermine the integrity of the electoral process,” Spanberger’s office said.
Similarly, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Russian intelligence services targeted election systems in at least 21 states before the 2016 presidential election.
But “I don’t want to re-litigate [the results of] 2016,” Spanberger said. “I want to learn from what happened and how it is that a foreign government aggressed against us. How can we recognize that there are real threats, that there are people who wish to influence the American voting public on Facebook ads?”
Spanberger, considered a fiscally conservative moderate, said she is also concerned about the security of America’s economic infrastructure and our energy infrastructure.
“If a foreign adversary — be it a government or a third-party, non-state actor — hacks the emails of a notable CEO or political leaders or other economic leaders, how could that be used and weaponized against us?” she said. “How could that create instability in the markets? What if they want to hack our electrical grid?”
Americans need to recognize that “these are real threats,” Spanberger said. “Only when we band together ... can we actually address the problem. ... What are we going to do to make sure that doesn’t ever happen again?”
Spanberger also aims to curb the influence on voting of untraceable “dark money” campaign contributions made by corporations, organizations and political action committees. Such entities face far weaker financial reporting requirements than do individual political candidates.
“If dollars are flowing into a campaign, people should know where it’s coming from,” she said.
Republicans say the bill is a bid by Democrats to tip future elections in their favor.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed that he won’t let HR 1 come to a vote in that chamber,
“I believe we can actually win elections against people who vote for this turkey,” McConnell said last week, Capitol Hill’s Roll Call newspaper reported.
McConnell, a longtime opponent of campaign finance reform, called the bill a “parade of horribles” and a “terrible proposal.”
He criticized its 6-to-1 public matching system for small donations in congressional elections and its reshaping of the Federal Election Commission from a six-member agency to a five-member panel whose chair would have more power to launch enforcement actions.
McConnell, R-Ky., has nicknamed the bill the “Democrat Politician Protection Act.”
Advocates say HR 1 is the strongest political reform bill in 40 years, since President Jimmy Carter proposed changes to campaign finance and to make it easier to vote, but was blocked by Republican conservatives, who called it a Democratic power grab.
Similarly, McConnell has called one of HR 1’s provisions, which would make Election Day a national holiday, a “power grab” by Democrats.
“We like to joke back that, yes, it’s a power grab — by the American people,” Spanberger said. “It would put our elections back in the hands of the American people, where they belong. It shouldn’t be corporate interests or special interests that are driving our elections. It should be the American people.
The Virginia lawmaker cosponsored a bill — which also was rolled into HR 1 as an amendment — to prevent foreign companies from funneling money into U.S. elections.
That measure, formerly the Get Foreign Money out of U.S. Elections Act (HR 746), would help close a campaign-finance loophole allowing foreign-controlled, foreign-owned or foreign-influenced corporations to funnel unlimited cash into American elections. After each federal election cycle, it would require an audit by the Federal Election Commission and a report on foreign money in U.S. elections.
“I’ve seen what happens when governments stop listening to the will of the people,” Spanberger said, referencing her prior work overseas. “... It’s dangerous, and it’s not who we are.”
On Friday, she was praised by End Citizens United, a political action committee that supported midterm candidates who promised to revamp campaign-finance law. The group derives its name from the 2010 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that deregulated campaign spending limits on independent groups for or against specific candidates.
“We applaud Rep. Spanberger, who championed reform from the beginning and took Washington by storm with her ideas of restoring power back to the American people,” the group said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the court’s Citizens United decision for free-speech reasons, criticized some of HR 1’s provisions as too broad. It supports the bill’s policy goals.