Remarks of Senator Patrick Leahy Supporting Appropriations Amendment on State Election Security Grants

I come to the floor today to talk about an amendment I will be offering that provides $250 million dollars for State Election Security Grants to protect our upcoming elections from attacks by Russia and other hostile foreign powers – which we know are growing and active threats. 

After our Intelligence Community’s unanimous assessment that Russia interfered in our 2016 election, Congress came together and appropriated $380 million dollars for State Election Security Grants in the FY 2018 Omnibus. Since that time, all 55 eligible states and territories have requested funding, 100 percent of these funds have been committed to the states, and, as of yesterday, 90 percent of the funds have been disbursed to the states.  This is rather remarkable considering the FY 2018 Omnibus was signed into law just four months ago.

This crucial funding has assisted states in improving election cybersecurity, replacing outdated election equipment, and undertaking other anti-cyber efforts.  This was an important first step to protect our democracy from foreign aggression.

But more is needed – and needed now, before the November 2018 elections and beyond. States need post-election audit systems to verify the accuracy of the final vote tally, and need to upgrade election-related computer systems if the Department of Homeland Security identifies any vulnerabilities.  State and local election officials should undergo cybersecurity training, and implement established cybersecurity best practices.  These efforts are all essential to the security of our elections, and my amendment would enable them to go forward.  Yesterday, 21 state attorneys general signed a letter urging Congress to appropriate more funding for the states to help them meet their election security needs.  In it they say:

“Additional funding for voting infrastructure will not only allow states to upgrade election systems, but will also allow for a comprehensive security risk assessment.  Unfortunately, past practice has shown that the existing Election Assistance Commission grants are simply insufficient to provide for the upgraded technology needed.  More funding is essential to adequately equip states with the financial resources we need to safeguard our democracy and protect the data of voting members in our states.”

I ask unanimous consent that this letter be included in the Record. 

It is clear that Congress must serve as a bulwark against Russian aggression, as our President has time and again proven he is unable or unwilling to do so. Standing on the world stage with Vladimir Putin, President Trump repeatedly refused to condemn Russia’s attacks on our democracy. Instead, he groveled to the authoritarian Putin, praising and defending his “strong denial” of Russian interference. President Trump then attacked our own law enforcement institutions while standing feet away from the very foe they work so hard to protect us from.

Faced with bipartisan outrage over the Helsinki fiasco, President Trump tried to walk back his comments. But, in typical fashion, he talked out of both sides of his mouth, repeating the baseless claim that the attack “could be other people also.” Then, the very next day, when asked if Russia is still targeting the United States, the President inexplicably said “no.” This was roughly 48 hours after his own Director of National Intelligence issued a statement reaffirming that Russia is engaged in “ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy.”

Some on the other side of the aisle argue that this is an issue for the states to deal with entirely on their own – that the federal government should not involve itself in states’ electoral systems.  But our states were attacked in 2016 by a foreign adversary and their election systems hacked by Russia’s foreign military intelligence service.  Would we stand idly by if any one of our states were attacked by a foreign government?  We wouldn’t just throw our hands up and say, “Oh well, it’s not my state, not my problem – you’re on your own.”  No, of course not.  We would come together to protect that state and provide the federal resources to help them out.  This is what we do as Americans.  And the same standard applies here on helping states strengthen and protect their election infrastructure.

So the Senate has a choice. We either heed the fact-based warnings of our dedicated law enforcement and national security professionals or, like President Trump, we take Putin at his word. We either choose to act as a co-equal branch of government to defend our democracy, or recklessly leave that responsibility to a President who can’t see – but instead embraces – the threat even when it stands right beside him.  I say this to all my fellow Senators: if you believe that Russia is fully intent on destabilizing our democracy yet again in November – as all of our national security and law enforcement officials do – then this amendment is a chance to take action and stand up for democracy.

# # # # #