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By Neal Earley
Heightened awareness about foreign influence in American politics has prompted Maryland’s two senators to introduce a bill to prevent foreign influence on American elections.
Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the Protect Our Elections Act, a bill that aims to prevent foreign adversaries from owning companies that are used in any state’s election apparatus.
The bill was prompted by an FBI report that one of the state’s vendors for voter registration, ByteGrid LLC, is financed by an investment fund managed by Vladimir Potanin, a Russian businessman and alleged confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Potanin’s funding of a company that manages Maryland’s voter registration alarmed many in the state, including members of the General Assembly, who asked Attorney General Brian Frosh to investigate the company.
While there is no evidence that ByteGrid’s connection to Potanin had any effect on Maryland’s elections, the connection of a state election vendor to a Russian oligarch has worried lawmakers within the state as well as Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
“Our free and fair elections are central to what makes America’s democracy an example to the world. We cannot allow Russia or any other foreign adversaries to own our election systems. This isn’t just a hypothetical issue – it happened right here in my home state of Maryland,” said Van Hollen in a statement.
Specifically the bill, if passed, would mandate that election vendors disclose any foreign ownership or control to the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Election Assistance Commission or any state or local election board.
In addition, the bill would require state and local governments to conduct an annual report to make sure that no election vendor is owned or controlled by a foreign national, unless that foreign national is a citizen of one of the countries that make up the Five Eyes allies, which are Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Australia along with the United States.
While both the Protect Our Elections Act and a similar bill introduced in the House of Representatives have bipartisan co-sponsors, the issue of whether and how much the Russian government influenced the 2016 Presidential Election has divided Democrats and Republicans.
In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a report that claimed the Russian government attempted to interfere in the 2016 Presidential Election in support of Donald J. Trump. While the report did not disclose any evidence of Russian interference, it claimed that American intelligence agencies have proof that the Russian government funded internet bots and trolls to influence American’s opinions on social media.
In addition, the report claimed that the Russia government was able to gain access to the Democratic National Committee’s networks, and was able to leak information that undermined Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election eventually led Trump to fire FBI Director James Comey, which led to a special counsel investigation headed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. Trump has maintained neither he, nor anyone from his campaign, colluded with Russia, calling the special counsel investigation a “witch hunt.”
Intelligence reports detailing the Russian government’s attempt to favor Trump in 2016, along with Trump’s attempt at detente with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has prompted many Democrats and some Republicans to become sensitive to information about any person with ties to Putin having any say in part in America elections.
“Elections are a cornerstone of the rule of law in America and foreign governments will continue to attempt to attack our election systems and work to undermine Americans’ faith in their government and the sanctity of the results of a free and fair election contest,” Cardin said. “All levels of government must therefore implement immediate safeguards to preserve the security and integrity of America’s ballot box, whether it is a paper or electronic ballot.”