National: Supreme Court to take on partisan gerrymandering this year | Politico

The Supreme Court will grapple with the legality of partisan gerrymandering in March when it hears arguments challenging congressional-district maps in two states. The court announced Friday it would consider cases from Maryland and North Carolina after lower federal courts threw out the congressional maps in both states, ruling that they were so gerrymandered to favor one party that they violated the constitutional rights of voters. The high court will consider whether to uphold those rulings and order new maps drawn for the 2020 elections in those states. Federal judges in Maryland tossed the state’s congressional map in November after Republicans sued, claiming Democrats went too far when they altered the lines of a district in Western Maryland to defeat the then-Republican incumbent. Since redrawing the map before the 2012 election, Democrats have held a 7-to-1 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, after entering the redistricting process with six members, to Republicans’ two.

National: Grand jury extended in U.S. special counsel’s Trump-Russia probe | Reuters

The term of the grand jury being used by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of possible collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign has been extended, an aide to the judge overseeing it said on Friday. The extension is a sign that Mueller is not done presenting evidence before the grand jury in his investigation of U.S. allegations of Russian interference in the election and any possible coordination between Moscow and Trump’s campaign. The grand jury was impaneled by the U.S. District Court in Washington in July 2017 for an 18-month term, the limit under federal rules. The term can be extended if the court determines it to be in the public interest to do so.

National: House Democrats’ First Bill Would Dramatically Boost Election Security | Gizmodo

The first bill introduced by House Democrats is a whopping 570-page voting reform package that offers, in part, significant financial support to state election agencies seeking to shore up their security through use of risk-limiting audits and the timely exchange of threat information. It would also require an intelligence community assessment ahead of federal elections, accompanied by recommendations to address potential threats from multiple agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. Perhaps most important, the bill requires states to use paper ballots, long considered the only true bulwark against election interference. The bill, known as H.B. 1 or the “For The People Act,” would further help participant states fund the replacement of outdated voting systems that experts assess may be vulnerable to remote intrusion and on-site tampering; security clearances could be expedited to help state election officials gain access more quickly to classified details about election threats; and would require the testing of voting machines nine months prior to any ballot being cast.

National: Senate confirms commissioners to Election Assistance Commission, giving it full powers | The Hill

The Senate late Wednesday confirmed by voice vote a pair of commissioners to the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), giving the agency a quorum for the first time since last March. Benjamin Hovland and Donald Palmer were among several nominees passed in the final hours of the Senate session. If they had not been confirmed before noon Thursday, when the 115th Congress adjourns, both nominees would have to go through the confirmation process again. Having a quorum means the EAC can now carry out major policy moves. The small federal agency — created in 2002 to help state and local officials administer elections — had only two commissioners since March, one short of the three needed to take on significant initiatives.

National: Cyber Threats and the Mid-Term U.S. Elections | Council on Foreign Relations

In 2018, the United States—for the first time in its history—held elections amidst wide-ranging efforts to protect this vital democratic process from foreign cyber threats. The Russian hacking and disinformation operations during the 2016 elections caught government officials, political campaigns, and voters unprepared and caused unprecedented controversies. For the 2018 mid-term elections, actions by local, state, and federal governments, the private sector, and civil society attempted to prevent the U.S. body politic from again being damaged by foreign cyber intrusions and information warfare. The 2018 elections ended without the cyber crises that marked the 2016 elections, but this outcome should not obscure the difficulties encountered this year in protecting U.S. elections from cyber threats. Despite progress, 2018 ended with the United States facing a daunting, unfinished policy agenda on strengthening election cybersecurity and responding to cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns aimed at dividing citizens and discrediting democracy.

National: House Democrats unveil first major legislative package of voting, campaign finance and ethics overhauls | Roll Call

Automatic voter registration, independent redistricting commissions, super PAC restrictions, forced release of presidential tax returns — these are just a handful of the provisions in a massive government overhaul package House Democrats will formally unveil Friday, according to a summary of the legislation obtained by Roll Call.  The package is being introduced as H.R. 1 to show that it’s the top priority of the new Democratic majority. Committees with jurisdiction over the measures will hold markups on the legislation before the package is brought to the floor sometime later this month or early in February.  H.R. 1 features a hodgepodge of policies Democrats have long promoted as solutions for protecting voters’ rights and expanding access to the polls, reducing the role of so-called dark money in politics, and strengthening federal ethics laws. 

National: Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer Introduce Nationwide Vote-by-Mail Bill | Willamette Week

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland) today introduced a bill aimed at curbing voter suppression. The politicians are proposing a nationwide adoption of Oregon’s vote-by-mail system, which they say will help democratize elections processes. The Vote-By-Mail Act would require passage by a Republican-controlled Senate and President Trump to become reality. On the eve of a 13-day government shutdown over funding of a U.S., Mexico border wall, that’s an unlikely scenario.

National: Voting Issues and Gerrymanders Are Now Key Political Battlegrounds | The New York Times

Voting rights and partisan gerrymandering, traditionally the preoccupation of wonky party strategists and good-government groups, have become major flash points in the debate about the integrity of American elections, signaling high stakes battles over voter suppression and politically engineered districts ahead of the 2020 presidential race. When Democrats take the majority in the House on Thursday, the first bill they plan to introduce will be broad legislation focusing on these issues. Early drafts of their proposals include automatic voter registration, public elections financing and ending gerrymandering by using independent commissions to draw voting districts. But action and anger go far beyond Congress. With voters increasingly aware of the powerful impact of gerrymandering and doubtful about the fairness of elections, voting issues have become central to politics in key states including Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

National: The 2018 Midterms Weren’t Hacked. What Does That Mean For 2020? | NPR

Leading up to Nov. 6, 2018, anyone with a stake in American democracy was holding their breath. After a Russian effort leading up to 2016 to sow chaos and polarization, and to degrade confidence in American institutions, what sort of widespread cyberattack awaited the voting system in the first national election since? None, it seems. High turnout overwhelmed election administrators, causing some voters to wait hours to cast ballots. Florida maintained its reputation as a state that’s been working out the kinks in its voting system for nearly two decades. And a congressional race in North Carolina is still up in the air as the state’s Board of Elections investigates alleged election fraud by a political operative. But an operation like the one Russia waged two years ago?

National: House Democrats scoop up lawyers to power Trump investigations | CNN

The House Judiciary Committee is looking for a few good lawyers. A recent committee job posting reviewed by CNN asked for legislative counsels with a variety of expertise: “criminal law, immigration law, constitutional law, intellectual property law, commercial and administrative law (including antitrust and bankruptcy), or oversight work.” The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee needs lawyers, too, posting jobs for “executive branch investigative counsel.” The advertisements give a window into the Democratic recruiting that’s ramped up ahead of the party gaining subpoena power for the first time in eight years when it takes over the House in January.

National: Election security bills face hurdles in 2019 | FCW

House Democrats will likely push new election security legislation in 2019 when they take over the majority, but obstacles remain in the Senate and the White House. On the administrative side, the Department of Homeland Security and state governments will look to build on cooperative efforts that resulted in the apparently successful 2018 mid-term elections. In the wake of the 2016 elections, state governments, experts and members of Congress have beat the drum for federal legislation to comprehensively address critical cybersecurity flaws in the nation’s election systems. Even after an infusion of $380 million in leftover Help America Vote Act grant funding earlier this year, many states say they continue to face major funding challenges. Earlier this year, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), incoming chair for the House Homeland Security Committee, called the grants “a drop in the bucket” compared to what is needed to secure election systems nationwide. Thompson filed legislation in February that would establish an ongoing pot of money for states to draw from through 2025, phase out reliance on paperless voting machines and boost the number of states who use risk limiting audits to ensure the integrity of election results.

National: Federal law allows nearly anyone to translate for voters. At polls, it can be a different story. | NBC

Dona Kim Murphey volunteered for the first time this year as a Korean-language interpreter, helping out at an early voting day in late October in Harris County, Texas. But Murphey said she and others were told to remain beyond a 100-foot line outside the polling center after assisting some voters with their ballots. An election worker, she said, had grown concerned that a group of Korean-American high school students greeting voters may have been electioneering. “She was worried that we were and couldn’t confirm that we weren’t, other than to go by our word,” Murphey said. While some experienced issues on Election Day like broken machines, voter confusion and long lines, others faced obstacles in getting language assistance.

National: Treasury sanctions Russians over alleged election interference, nerve-agent attack | The Hill

The Trump administration on Wednesday sanctioned nine Russian nationals for allegedly attempting to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. The Treasury Department announced that the nine GRU officers, who had been indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this year for the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), are now facing penalties for “their direct involvement in efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election by targeting election systems and political parties, as well as releasing stolen election-related documents.” The department also sanctioned two GRU officers over the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent in March.

National: Russia’s divisive Instagram memes are still racking up likes | Fast Company

It’s even worse than you think. One of the biggest revelations in Monday’s bombshell reports on Russia’s social media propaganda campaign was that Instagram played a much bigger role than previously known—resulting in 187 million engagements versus 76.5 million engagements on Facebook—at a scale far larger than parent company Facebook has acknowledged. And though the Russian Instagram accounts have since been deleted, they actually have had a greater impact than the new batch of Facebook data suggests: A search of Instagram reveals that at least hundreds of Internet Research Agency (IRA)-linked posts are still alive across the platform through legitimate U.S.-owned Instagram accounts, where they have racked up thousands of likes. Sen. Mark Warner, the Democrat Vice Chair of the Senate committee that commissioned the reports, told Fast Company that the lingering posts were a sign that more investigation is needed. “This is exactly why we thought it was important to release this information to the public—so that we can continue to identify what’s out there, and uncover additional IRA accounts that are still operational,” he said.

National: Congress Now Has a Very Full, Very Ugly Picture of How Russia Targeted Black Americans | Slate

It should be well-known by now that Russian operatives made memes and fake activist pages to try to sway the 2016 presidential campaign for Donald Trump. But what most people don’t know is that they were also selling sex toys, recruiting Americans to work with them through job listings, offering free self-defense classes, soliciting photos for a calendar, and even offering counseling to followers of page called Army of Jesus who were struggling with porn addiction. Two new reports delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee—one from the cybersecurity group New Knowledge and the other from Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and the social networking–analysis firm Graphika—expand what the public knows about how a Kremlin-linked troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, widened divides in American political life during and after the 2016 election. Together, the reports comprise the most extensive research yet into exactly how Russian agents instrumentalized U.S. technology companies to launch what may be largest state-sponsored effort to manipulate voters and derail an election in U.S. history.

National: Why the Russian Influence Campaign Remains So Hard to Understand | The New Yorker

Reading a new report on Russian online interference in the 2016 Presidential election is a cognitively disturbing experience. The report, prepared by the cybersecurity company New Knowledge, was the more detailed of two commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee and released on Monday—it is illustrated with screenshots of memes apparently used as part of the Russian campaign of disinformation. The text of the report describes a sophisticated, wide-ranging, sustained, strategic operation by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, one that played out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and elsewhere: “The Internet Research Agency exploited divisions in our society by leveraging vulnerabilities in our information ecosystem. They exploited social unrest and human cognitive biases.” But the illustrations accompanying the New Knowledge report seem transposed from a wholly different narrative.

National: Russian propagandists targeted African Americans to influence 2016 US election | The Guardian

Russian online propagandists aggressively targeted African Americans during the 2016 US election campaign to suppress votes for Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump, according to new research. Analysts found that Russian operatives used social media to “confuse, distract, and ultimately discourage” black people and other pro-Clinton blocs from voting, using bogus claims such as Clinton receiving money from the Ku Klux Klan. Black turnout declined in 2016 for the first presidential election in 20 years, according to the US census bureau, falling to less than 60% from a record high of 66.6% in 2012. Exit polls indicated that black voters strongly favoured Clinton over Trump. The new findings on the secret activities of the Internet Research Agency(IRA), known as the Russian government’s “troll factory”, were revealed on Monday in a pair of reports to the US Senate’s intelligence committee. One was led by experts from Oxford University and the other by New Knowledge, an American cybersecurity firm.

National: Russian 2016 Influence Operation Targeted African-Americans on Social Media | The New York Times

The Russian influence campaign on social media in the 2016 election made an extraordinary effort to target African-Americans, used an array of tactics to try to suppress turnout among Democratic voters and unleashed a blizzard of activity on Instagram that rivaled or exceeded its posts on Facebook, according to a report produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The report adds new details to the portrait that has emerged over the last two years of the energy and imagination of the Russian effort to sway American opinion and divide the country, which the authors said continues to this day. “Active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms,” says the report, produced by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company based in Austin, Tex., along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC. One continuing Russian campaign, for instance, seeks to influence opinion on Syria by promoting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and a Russian ally in the brutal conflict there.

National: Voter Suppression and Racial Targeting: In Facebook’s and Twitter’s Words | The New York Times

A report submitted to a Senate committee about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election says that social media companies made misleading or evasive claims about whether the efforts tried to discourage voting or targeted African-Americans on their platforms. The report, which is based largely on data provided to Congress by companies such as Facebook and Twitter, was produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company, along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research. It found the Russian campaign focused on influencing African-Americans and also tried to suppress voting.

National: Targeting Black Americans, Russia’s IRA Exploited Racial Wounds | WIRED

Two days before the 2016 presidential election, @woke_blacks posted an anti-voting polemic to its Instagram account. “The excuse that a lost Black vote for Hillary is a Trump win is bs. Should you decide to sit-out the election, well done for the boycott,” the caption read. “I remind us all one more time, anyone who wins can literally change less about the state of Black people, we are on our own, esp. after Obama. Wise up my people!” Another user, @afrokingdom_, shared a comparable sentiment: “Black people are smart enough to understand that Hillary doesn’t deserve our votes! DON’T VOTE!” According to a new report commissioned for the Senate Intelligence Committee by cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, those accounts, along with dozens more, were part of an extensive and complex campaign to suppress the black American vote by the Russian firm Internet Research Agency.

National: Literacy Tests Are Gone, But Voter Suppression Isn’t | HuffPost

It used to be that literacy tests and poll taxes kept black voters from the ballot box. It was deliberate disenfranchisement put in place to block African-Americans after they legally gained the right to vote. But in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law one of the most powerful pieces of legislation in the history of the United States. The law, called the Voting Rights Act, equipped the federal government with a bazooka it could aim at racist barriers standing in the way of minority voters. The Voting Rights Act not only wiped out many of those restrictions, but it was a profound acknowledgement that change could only happen if all Americans could choose who governed them. In Episode 1 of “Shut Out” we take a 1960s literacy test, designed to keep black people from voting, and learn more about how America made it hard, and continues to make it hard, for black voters to get to the polls.

National: House Democrats plan to push hard on election security next Congress | The Washington Post

House Democrats are planning a blitz of efforts to improve election security when they take control of the lower chamber next year. Democrats will include some version of election security legislation in H.R. 1, the major legislative package they plan to introduce in the first days of the next Congress, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told me. Thompson also intends to hold public hearings with Trump administration leaders and state and local election officials focused on how they’re hardening election systems in the lead-up to the marquee 2020 contest. The committee will further seek to hear from top voting machine manufacturers, which have had a contentious relationship with congressional watchdogs, a Democratic committee aide told me. The House Oversight Committee will also review how states are spending $380 million in election security grants that Congress approved as part of an omnibus spending bill in March, Rep. Robin L. Kelly (D-Ill.), incoming chair of the committee’s information technology panel, said in an interview.

National: New report on Russian disinformation, prepared for the Senate, shows the operation’s scale and sweep | The Washington Post

A report prepared for the Senate that provides the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 election found the operation used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Trump — and worked even harder to support him while in office. The report, a draft of which was obtained by The Washington Post, is the first to study the millions of posts provided by major technology firms to the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), its chairman, and Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), its ranking Democrat. The bipartisan panel hasn’t said whether it endorses the findings. It plans to release it publicly along with another study later this week.

National: Disputed North Carolina race exposes mail ballot flaws | The Hill

An investigation into suspected fraud in a closely contested House race in North Carolina has shined a spotlight on an increasingly powerful tool in U.S. elections: mail-in ballots. The case in North Carolina’s 9th District, which centers on claims of an aggressive — and illegal — absentee ballot drive by a Republican operative, has resurfaced concerns about the security of mail-in ballots and the potential for fraud. It also raises questions about how vote-by-mail programs should be executed, especially with a growing number of Americans casting their ballots by mail. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of voters who cast mail-in ballots more than tripled, from 2.4 million to 8.2 million, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

National: Federal Election Commission could give lawmakers new tools against hacking | The Washington Post

The Federal Election Commission will vote today on whether lawmakers can use leftover campaign cash to secure their personal tech devices and email accounts against hackers. The proposal, from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), comes amid rising concern that Kremlin-linked hackers are targeting the personal email accounts and other data of lawmakers and their office and campaign staffs. Hacked information from those personal accounts could be used for blackmail or as a jumping-off point to break into email accounts for campaigns, congressional offices or even federal agencies. More importantly, hackers could strategically release hacked information to upend a political campaign, as Russia did with hacked emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee in 2016, or to sway a political or policy debate.  

National: What Putin knew on Election Day 2016 | The Washington Post

The National Rifle Association’s 2016 annual convention was held in May of that year in Kentucky. Donald Trump Jr. attended, as he had in the past. So did Alexander Torshin, also a regular at NRA events. The two ended up speaking briefly at a dinner in Louisville, though details of that encounter are sketchy. Why does it matter? Because Torshin is a Russian government official, a representative of the country’s central bank and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. How Torshin and Trump Jr. came to be in the same room together and why is one of the smaller mysteries orbiting the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but not an insignificant one: Mueller is reportedly investigating whether the NRA specifically was used as a conduit for Russians to support Trump’s candidacy. There’s an interesting detail to that Torshin meeting, though, which hasn’t received much attention. On Thursday, a Russian woman named Maria Butina pleaded guilty in federal court to having engaged in a covert influence operation on behalf of Russia — an operation in which Torshin was involved. Part of Butina’s plea included a statement of offense, in which her criminal actions were stipulated.

National: Despite Inactivity During Midterm Elections, Hackers Are Likely To Ramp Up Attacks In 2020 | Wall Street Journal

Hackers were less active than security experts had anticipated during last month’s midterm elections, but the federal government should still continue its assistance to state and local election security, according to Judd Choate, director of the division of elections at Colorado’s department of state. “Many states need money, they need assistance,” Mr. Choate told security experts Tuesday at the WSJ Pro Cybersecurity Executive Forum in New York. Russian hackers’ dialed back their activity this year after attempting to interfere in the 2016 election and leaking stolen emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he said. Despite the lack of high-profile cyber threats around this year’s midterm elections, there are signs that hackers will use more sophisticated tactics to interfere in 2020, officials said. Robby Mook, campaign manager for Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign, predicted that attackers will deploy so-called deep fake videos to sow confusion around the next presidential election, using artificial intelligence to create doctored videos and images that appear realistic.

National: Tabloid Publisher’s Deal in Hush-Money Inquiry Adds to Trump’s Danger | The New York Times

With the revelation by prosecutors on Wednesday that a tabloid publisher admitted to paying off a Playboy model, key participants in two hush-money schemes say the transactions were intended to protect Donald J. Trump’s campaign for president. That leaves Mr. Trump in an increasingly isolated and legally precarious position, according to election law experts. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments made in 2016 to keep two women silent about alleged affairs are now firmly framed as illegal campaign contributions. The news about the publisher, the parent company of The National Enquirer, came on the same day that Mr. Trump’s former lawyer Michael D. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in part for his involvement in the payments. “I blame myself for the conduct which has brought me here today,” Mr. Cohen said, “and it was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man” — a reference to Mr. Trump — “that led me to choose a path of darkness over light.”