DHS Reauthorization Bill Would Allow Trump to Send Secret Service to Polling Places

President Donald Trump could send armed Secret Service agents to patrol polling places during the 2018 general election, according to Section 4012 of House Resolution 2825. The pending Department of Homeland Security Reauthorization Bill includes a provision that would amend the federal law barring troops at polling sites by adding the following text:

SEC. 4012. SECRET SERVICE PROTECTION AT POLLING PLACES.

Section 592 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following:
“This section shall not prevent any officer or agent of the United States Secret Service from providing armed protective services authorized under section 3056 or pursuant to a Presidential memorandum at any place where a general or special election is held.” [H.R. 2825]

The House of Representatives passed its version of the legislation on July 20, 2017, though that provision didn’t raise many alarms at the time.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed the bill on Wednesday, though billVoelkel, a spokesman for committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI)told  the Boston Globe it didn’t include the provision in question. If the bill is passed by the full Senate, the House and Senate versions would need to be reconciled.

Given the potential threat, 19 bipartisan secretaries of state and elections commissioners sent a letter (pdf) to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) urging them to remove the provision, which they say has “unprecedented and shocking language,” from the final version:

We write to you today out of concern regarding unprecedented and shocking language currently included in Section 4012 of HR 2825, the reauthorization of the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Section 4012 allows Secret Service personnel unlimited access to polling places pursuant to the President’s direction. This is an alarming proposal which raises the possibility that armed federal agents will be patrolling neighborhood precincts and vote centers.

Title 18 of the US Code makes it a crime for a military or civil officer in the service of the United States to bring or keep their troops “at any place where a general or special election is held,” unless it is necessary to protect against an armed invasion. This longstanding and carefully crafted statute ensures the right of voters to cast their ballots under the limited authority of civil officers rather than law enforcement. Secretaries of State across the country agree that there is no discernable [sic] need for federal Secret Service agents to intrude, at the discretion of the president, who may also be a candidate in that election, into the thousands of citadels where democracy is enshrined.

Due to this grave concern, we write to you today to humbly request your assistance in removing this damaging and concerning provision from the proposed legislation. Yesterday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee considered this legislation and heard our concerns, expressed to Senators Johnson and McCaskill, regarding this and other amendments to the bill that we found disquieting. However, the committee did not have the authority to address this important issue, and therefore we bring this request directly to you as leaders of your respective parties within the Senate.

[Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver et al., letter to Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, March 09, 2018.]

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Among the signatories is Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who said in a statement Friday:

“The fact that the U.S. Senate would even consider enacting a law that would allow a president to place Secret Service agents in polling places is shocking.”

Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin told the Boston Globe, “This is worthy of a Third World country,” adding: “I’m not going to tolerate people showing up to our polling places. I would not want to have federal agents showing up in largely Hispanic areas.”

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said Monday that the plan “is both chilling and unprecedented,” and pointed to the administration’s efforts to suppress the vote.

“History has shown that the presence of law enforcement at the polls has the effect of chilling voter turnout, especially among minority communities. Any plans to send armed guards to polling places must be considered alongside President Trump’s recent issuance of an executive order disbanding his failed Commission on Election Integrity. It was clear from the start that President Trump launched the Commission to lay the groundwork to promote voter suppression efforts across the country,” she said.

“Two months after shuttering the Commission,” she continued, “President Trump now seeks to activate one of our federal government’s most secretive law enforcement agencies to depress and discourage minority voter participation in our midterm elections. In no uncertain terms, we condemn any plan to activate the Secret Service at our nation’s polling sites.”

On January 6, 2017, the Department of Homeland Security declared the electoral system as “critical infrastructure,” putting election equipment in the same category as the power grid or financial sector.

The designation faced strong opposition from some state election officials. One of the leading critics of the move, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said the move “smacks of partisan politics,” and that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson had blindsided state election officials, stating, “This action is a federal overreach into a sphere constitutionally reserved for the states.”

But Johnson insisted it would make protecting polling places, election machines, voter databases and other information technology a formal cybersecurity priority for the department.

The “critical” label is applied to sectors that, if damaged, would inflict serious harm to the nation’s security or economy.

DHS chose to file election systems under “government facilities” one of the 16 existing critical infrastructure sectors. Under the new designation, states that request cybersecurity assistance can receive swifter access to threat intelligence and be able to participate in joint defense exercises.

The passage of this DHS reauthorization bill with the House provision would be another step forward in the systematic attack on democracy by an unelected government bureaucracy.