In 2016, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson found that state election officials were suspicious of federal offers of assistance in defending their voting systems from cyber attack. He tried to persuade them to accept DHS designation of those systems as “critical infrastructure,” which would have given states access on a priority basis to a range of protections. The response he received ranged from “neutral to negative.” DHS concluded that, in the middle of an election, it was best not to have a protracted, politicized fight over this step. It focused on providing assistance where it could, and a large number of jurisdictions requested help. In January 2017, even with officials remaining skeptical about the designation, Secretary Johnson proceeded to issue it.

According to Johnson, and as further reflected in reporting by The Washington Post, election officials resisting this engagement with the federal government viewed it as a threat to” states rights.” At least one, Brian Kemp of Georgia, suspected that the Administration might be using the claimed Russian interference as a ploy to advance the political prospects of its favored candidate, Hillary Clinton.  Kemp and others were not convinced that the Obama Administration had properly fixed blame on the Russians. Congressional Republican leadership stayed close to their state allies on these points, also stressing the rights of states and declining to embrace the finding of Russian intrusions.

This is a revealing part of the 2016 story: government at war with itself, in the grip of partisanship, when under cyber attack from a foreign government. The attack was directed at the electoral process, and yet it was still not enough to produce a unified, fully coordinated federal and state response. For all the progress in bipartisan election administrative reform in recent years--and there has been a fair measure of it--Johnson’s account exposes key, and altogether familiar, structural obstacles.

Catastrophic Attack and Political Reform

June 22, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Had the Alexandria shooter had his way and murdered a score or more legislators on a baseball field, the country would have witnessed horrifying carnage--and, as Norm Ornstein has argued, it would have entered into genuine constitutional crisis. The slaughter of the members of one political party would have changed, in minutes, the balance of power in the federal government. A Killer’s Congress would have come into session for an extended time. Special elections don’t happen overnight, or within days or weeks.

It is hard to see how-- by what exceptional displays of political leadership--the government in these conditions could re-establish its legitimacy. It would be exceptionally hard in the “best of times”. In a divisive, polarized politics, it is close to unimaginable.

As Ornstein points out, we cannot say that this miserable state of affairs could not have been anticipated. On 9/11, the Capitol only escaped a devastating attack because Flight 93’s passengers gave their lives to bring down the plane. We also cannot say that no thought was then given to reforms to protect the continuity and democratic integrity of government if its senior ranks were to be violently cut down. Ornstein joined with others to establish a Continuity of Government Commission, which then recommended measures for assuring in the event of catastrophe a functioning, constitutionally legitimate presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. That was fourteen years ago.

The Trump Executive Order and IRS Politics

May 9, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

President Trump’s Executive Order to relieve religious organizations of regulatory limits on their political activities came and went with little stir. It was widely seem to be lacking in content. David French, writing in The National Review, was harsher, pronouncing it "worse than useless."

Aimed at the Johnson Amendment, the Order directs the Secretary of the Treasury not to take "any adverse action" against a 501(c) organization speaking on political issues "from a religious perspective." But commentators correctly observed that an Executive Order cannot undo a statute, and that the Order confines its directives to actions by the Secretary "to the extent permitted by law" or "consistent with law." Translated into its simplest terms, the Order requires the Secretary to do what he can if the law allows it, and because the law in question is the Johnson Amendment, then the President has, in effect, demanded that the Secretary ease restrictions “to the extent permitted” by the Johnson Amendment. This is an unusual way of taking on the Amendment.

But if we look beyond the murky conception behind the Order and its somewhat tortuous wording, and consider what it might mean in practice, then it seems more consequential--at least in the next four years.

Nate Persily of Stanford Law is emerging as the leading authority on the effect of the internet and social media on political campaigns.  His recent article in the Journal of Democracy displays Persily’s strengths: deep research, clarity of exposition and a grasp of what is significant in the messy world of facts. He is unmistakably alarmed: indeed, in interviews, he has said so.  Persily fears that a ruthless marriage of technology to “fake news” can destroy the prospects for responsible democratic deliberation.

Where does this discussion of fake news go from here, and what are the pitfalls? Professor Persily notes that the dominant Internet platforms are moving toward policies to help readers locate the bona fide news items. Facebook now works with traditional media organizations and fact-checking enterprises to “flag” dubious stories. Some readers will accept this role, as a responsible exercise of power, while others will see it as an expansion of great market power. Or, in Persily’s words:

[Market] power far in excess of that which legacy media institutions had in their heyday, let alone today. Especially in an environment in which the regulated speech—whether hate speech, fake news, or otherwise—tends to predominate on one side of the political spectrum, they cannot escape the charge that their new rules are biased either in intent or in effect.

Persily makes clear that the issues are complex but he sees large questions of policy to which answers are required if we are to have “integrity” of information on which democratic debate depends.

The FEC will be defending the “structure” of the contribution limits this week in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The case, Holmes v. Federal Election Commission, tests the constitutionality of the "per election" limits as applied to a donor’s choice to participate only in the one--the general--election. If a donor skips a primary, and wishes only to contribute in the general, she now cannot give the full amount allowed for the election cycle cycle, $5400, but only half of that: $2700, the "per election" limit for the general.  The Holmes plaintiffs’ point is that this bifurcation of the limits serves no legitimate anti-corruption purpose. Donors do not potentially corrupt candidates in the primary, or the general, or a run-off: the corruption, if it occurs, is the result of the amounts given through the date that the candidate is elected to office, after which the new officeholder is in a position to return the favor. And the limit Congress settled on to serve this anticorruption interest is the combined allowance for the cycle, $5400, a point that the Supreme Court stressed in McCutcheon.

The problem presented by the bifurcation of the limits is worsened by the messiness of its application. Incumbents and other largely unopposed candidates do well under this system, collecting money for primaries they don’t have to compete in and transferring the money to their general election accounts. Both the candidates in this position and their donors are aware that the money being given to the “primary” is really for the “general.” And a candidate can collect a contribution designated for the general election before the primary election is decided, provided that the candidate escrows the money and does not spend it until after the date of the primary. In this case, the candidate has, in fact, accepted a full cycle contribution of $5400 prior to the general election. It may be subject to a restriction on when it is spent, but the donor looking to make an impression, with a full cycle’s worth of contributions before the primary, will have done so.  Or, knowing that a primary candidate is closing in on victory, a donor can give the full primary election amount the day before the primary, and the full general election amount the day after, with confidence that he or she has given $5400 for the general election.

And add to all this that by FEC rule, an opposed candidate who, by operation of state law is not even on the ballot may still raise a "primary" or "general" election contribution in the full amount. The regulation reads:

A primary or general election which is not held because a candidate is unopposed or received a majority of votes in a previous election is a separate election for the purposes of the limitations on contributions of this section. The date on which the election would have been held shall be considered to be the date of the election.

11 C.F.R. 110.1(j)(3).