As an act of political theater, the Democrats’ recent attempt to cast Mitch McConnell in a bad light has been quite successful. The Internet is awash in headlines contending that he blocked election-security reforms despite warnings about ongoing Russian interference from Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The reactions are overwrought and unfair. McConnell was right to stop the two bills at the center of the controversy, and the Democrats knew full well ahead of time that he would do so. And “Cocaine Mitch” is a far better nickname than “Moscow Mitch” anyway.
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. The other would require candidates to report foreign offers of assistance; this would encounter numerous practical difficulties and at minimum cannot simply sail through the Senate unimpeded.
Senate Democrats asked for unanimous consent to these bills knowing they would not receive it and pretended to be shocked when they didn’t get it. The media then gobbled up a narrative about McConnell stopping action on an issue right after being warned about how serious a problem it was.
To be clear, foreign election interference is, indeed, a serious threat. According to the recent Intelligence Committee report, while there’s no sign that vote totals have been manipulated, there have been successful efforts to access sensitive information such as voter registration.
Less well known, however, is that there’s already been immense progress on this issue. The Department of Homeland Security and the states have gotten far better at addressing it since the 2016 election; Congress provided the states $380 million for election security just last year; under McConnell, the Senate has passed bills to further deter and punish those who interfere in elections. Still, additional efforts are warranted, and some of those efforts could require legislation.
We share McConnell’s hesitance toward federalizing election policy. 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. But we encourage him to be open to narrow, bipartisan legislation to tackle problems that only the federal government can tackle, and have every reason to believe he will be.
These bills were not that.