Mitch McConnell is a victim of a “modern-day McCarthyism,” he claimed on Monday, after people on Twitter called him “Moscow Mitch” simply because he has spent a week blocking legislation intended to protect American elections from foreign interference. The Senate majority leader spent 30 minutes complaining on the Senate floor about the unfairness of it all, though it’s hard to judge the sincerity of his umbrage; he’s been called far worse, for doing far worse. But if McConnell really is hurt by Dana Milbank calling him a “Russian asset,” it does seem like one simple way to make Milbank stop would be to pass legislation designed to secure our elections.
The entire suite of Democratic proposals to improve election security are of course a nonstarter in a Republican-run government, and not just because Republicans have chosen to strategically believe or disbelieve in Russian election interference depending on the president’s moods and ever-shifting statements. Many of the Democratic proposals involve barring candidates and people associated with campaigns and political committees from receiving contributions, monetary and otherwise, from foreign nationals, and Republicans principally oppose most attempts to interfere in any form of influence-peddling. Some of them basically conceded as much, whispering on background to The New York Times that McConnell, as reporter Carl Hulse wrote, “is leery of even entering into legislative negotiation that could touch on fund-raising and campaign spending.”
I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over these proposals being blocked, as I imagine they’d be enforced with as much vigor as the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is to say not really enforced at all. But it is notable that the most potentially helpful reform proposal the Democrats put forth, which has very little to do with the specter of “foreign interference,” was blocked along with all the rest. The main feature of the Securing America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act is a requirement that all federal elections use paper ballots.
Paper ballot requirements are one of those issues various Republicans and conservatives, even quite extreme ones, occasionally voice support for in order to sound Reasonable. Mark Meadows of the House Freedom Caucus introduced a bill requiring paper ballot receipts last year, which anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff approvingly mentioned in a Washington Post op-ed. The op-ed also mentioned another Senate bill requiring paper ballots, introduced by Democrats and Republicans (including Trump ally Lindsey Graham) in 2017 and 2018.
So far, McConnell and his allies have explained their opposition to the Democrats’ SAFE Act mainly by sidestepping the content of the legislation entirely. McConnell’s central opposition is that the bill is “partisan,” which is to say that Democrats want to pass it, which means, by definition, that McConnell cannot allow it to pass. (Or even be voted on: It might then attract some Republican support, which would make the bill less partisan, removing the basis of his opposition.)
This is enough for some conservatives. National Review, mostly applauding McConnell’s intransigence, offers only this in explanation of why the SAFE bill should have been blocked: “The Democrats tried to push these bills by unanimous consent. One of them, a bill giving states hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade their voting systems and requiring the use of paper ballots, had already passed the House—and won only a single Republican vote, meaning its support is far from unanimous.”
In general, though, when Republicans oppose election reform proposals that would make our elections easier to efficiently and fairly administer—and require that they be efficiently and fairly administered—they appeal to federalism and the tradition of local control of elections. (National Review, again: “This is an area traditionally handled by the states, and on those grounds McConnell has held up several efforts, some with bipartisan support, in recent months.”)
McConnell has supported sweeping, top-down federal election reforms in the past. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, a largely useless set of reforms that had the side effect of rewarding the manufacturers of easily hackable electronic voting machines. (That bill’s only opponents in the Senate were, of all people, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, who opposed HAVA’s voter ID requirements.) But we are a long way from 2002, and the invocation of tradition and local control should make it clear what Republican opposition to electoral reform is about: Not doing Putin’s bidding, but Brian Kemp’s.
Kemp is currently the governor of Georgia, having won an election he was also then administering as secretary of state. Georgia’s paperless touchscreen voting machines have been in use since Georgia signed a $54 million contract with Diebold to purchase them days after HAVA became law. Since 2002, they’ve been insecure, and made proper election audits impossible. Advocates and voters are currently suing to force Georgia to immediately adopt paper ballots. Just last week they filed a brief accusing Kemp and his current secretary of state of destroying evidence by wiping servers and overwriting data on voting machines themselves.
America’s elections are a patchwork of fiefdoms, many run by secretaries of state (many of whom are Republicans), some directly run by state parties themselves. Republicans oppose federal reform of the system because it could deny them the ability to create chaos—chaos that sends the other side’s votes to the wrong polling places, purges thousands or hundreds of thousands from the rolls, and strands urban voters in long lines. Chaos that could create opportunities for—and plausible deniability about—more serious fraud and criminality. Chaos that makes it hard to believe this Senate will ever allow truly secure paper ballot regulations, with strict regular audits, to become a national requirement.
If anything, the Democrats’ (extremely in-character) insistence on painting this as a National Security Issue downplays the political salience of pointing out that electoral chaos simply serves partisan Republican ends. McConnell is not acting out of secret allegiance to a foreign despot, but out of the much more traditional, and traditionally American, allegiance to making it difficult for certain classes and communities to vote. If he doesn’t like “Moscow Mitch” (and I don’t, either), might I suggest Mitch Crow.