Much attention has focused on H.R. 1, the comprehensive package of democracy reforms introduced on Thursday by Representative John Sarbanes (D-Md.) on behalf of the new Democratic House majority. The unprecedented legislation is perhaps the most important domestic initiative of the new Congress. But it also has the capacity to begin fixing what has been broken in our foreign relations, reassuring our allies that America is on the way back to restoring our democracy, and with it our global leadership. Since 2016, the United States’ friends around the world have been faced with a dual shock: Russia’s multipronged attack on our elections that year and the ascension of President Donald Trump, who has criticized our longtime partners while embracing authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin—despite his assault on our democracy.
H.R. 1 reforms our broken political system but it also addresses the concerns of Americans and allies alike who are anxious that our elections are vulnerable to future foreign attacks. The bill incorporates election security reforms that are long overdue. It would establish standards for election vendors, provide significant assistance to states to improve and protect their election systems, and bolster federal efforts to assess and respond to threats to election systems.
H.R. 1 also responds to Putin’s violations of our campaign finance laws. Russian agents spent money on campaign ads in the United States in 2016 in violation of the ban on foreign governments making expenditures to influence our elections. They have run other ads to foment divisions while hiding their role as the sponsors and funders of the ads. H.R.1 contains new disclosure provisions to ensure the American people know the actual sponsors of the ads. This will also help us prevent illegal campaign expenditures by foreign interests in our elections.
But Congress’ efforts to protect our democracy— and to communicate to the world that we are doing so — must go beyond merely preventing another such catastrophe. Our allies and our adversaries know that the most fundamental aspect of democracy is broken in the United States: The promise that every citizen can freely exercise the right to vote. The obstacles to voting in some states, including voter suppression and discrimination, is a national—and international—disgrace.