Recent weeks have delivered entertaining political theater related to the Mueller Report, with both sides of the aisle fuming and pontificating.
But regardless of one’s political leanings, one thing should be clear: the digital era requires stronger election security measures. That should be evident whether or not you believe the Russians succeeded in influencing the outcome of the 2016 elections. After all, they tried, and they’ll try again.
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Consider the recent past. During the 2016 presidential election, evidence shows Russian intelligence agencies deliberately and maliciously engaged in widespread voter influence campaigns on social media, waged cyber-attacks on political parties, and attempted intrusions into state election systems. They tried many of the same tactics in 2018, again attempting to spread misinformation before the midterms.
Now, intelligence officials tell us they expect Russia to employ similar tactics in 2020.
A major target of these attacks is election infrastructure, a critical component of our democracy. We should expect foreign adversaries such as Russia, China, Iran, and probably even North Korea to keep election infrastructure in their crosshairs. That’s because while they ideally would like to influence election outcomes, they’ll settle for making American elections appear as illegitimate as their own.
What can we do to stop this meddling? So far, much has been done to prevent election system hacking, but federal authorities, Congress, and states can certainly do more. This will require broad cooperation and significant investment.
Over the past two years, the Department of Homeland Security has worked with local officials and private partners to mitigate risk to election infrastructure.
DHS officials worked with election vendors, for example, to create the Sector Coordinating Council, a private council that will coordinate with federal authorities on election security.
Congress got involved, too, with the Senate Intelligence Committee concluding in May 2018 that DHS’s response to election system attacks was inadequate. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission was appropriated $380 million to bolster election infrastructure at the state and local level.
Congress also passed the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act in November 2018 to make the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency a stand-alone federal agency.
At the local level, 32 states and 31 local governments have accepted cybersecurity help from DHS. Pennsylvania transitioned to voting machines that leave an auditable paper trail. New York invested $5 million in enhanced election infrastructure and teamed with the private sector on cybersecurity risk assessments.
More can be done, but it takes funding. The technological changes needed are expensive, and states simply don’t have the money. Federal mandates must be funded.
Beyond dollars, though, upgrading election infrastructure means striking a balance between making voting as easy as possible and hardening voting against meddling. Measures such as internet voting or email registration sound good but are fraught with danger. Federal officials should help states make the wisest choices possible to avoid security holes.
What shouldn’t we do? An obvious answer is that federal authorities shouldn’t mandate a single system of conducting elections. This not only violates the autonomy of states but could even make it easier for the bad guys.
Diversity in voting systems is constitutionally appropriate but also provides an added layer of protection. States need to make their own decisions about election infrastructure, with guidance and funding from federal authorities.
A less obvious pitfall to avoid is trying to pressure Russia through new legislative sanctions. This is already happening, with two bills reintroduced this session attempting to do something to answer the gauntlet thrown down by the Russians.
Both the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER Act) introduced by Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen and the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKAA) introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham and Bob Menendez were introduced for that purpose.
These legislative sanctions won’t stop Russian meddling. They could, however, imperil American businesses that operate in Russia and cause a host of other unfavorable outcomes.
The DETER Act, for example, would provide the federal Director of National Intelligence with the authority to assess if any foreign government has meddled in an election, with the Treasury Department poised then to levy sanctions to compel better Russian behavior.
DASKAA is directed more generally at Russian energy interests, with its sanctions prohibiting U.S. engagement in crude oil production and projects supported by the Russian government.
Both measures would catch American businesses in the crossfire. This means U.S. businesses could be blocked from getting paid for services or from working on some projects, enriching competing Russian firms in the process.
Sanctions could also lead to Russia weaponizing oil production and squeezing the U.S. out of vital oil markets to the benefit of competitors like OPEC and China.
TheTreasury Department even sent a warning to Congress that sanctions could hurt the U.S. by forcing the selloff of dollars to our competitors.
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Sanctions have never stopped Putin and the Russians from bad behavior, including invading sovereign nations. They attempt to use an economic approach to solve a political problem, a strategy not only likely to fail but likely to hurt U.S. businesses more than the Russians.
If we really want to stop Russia from creating election chaos, the answer is a continued investment in strengthening election infrastructure. Working together, federal authorities and local governments can pursue a path that preserves the integrity of our elections.