Given all the warnings from credible sources, the United States has no excuse for taking the security of elections for granted next year. A new bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee this week added a further wakeup call on this issue, concluding that all 50 states were targets of Russian hacking attempts in 2016, although it appears no results were compromised.
Preparing for 2020, each county and state, as well as the federal government, needs to find ways to assure American voters that no foreign country will seize hold of our electoral system and thwart the will of the people. Evidence suggests Russia won’t be the only problem. Iran, North Korea and China may attempt to interfere, as well, even if just using cleverly disguised propaganda or by planting false stories to a gullible audience on social media.
Congress could play a bigger role in this, although its role should remain limited to funding and general rules. Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to block consideration of any Democrat-sponsored bill that would provide more resources to states for new voting equipment, or that would set minimum standards for paper printouts of votes or other systems that would allow for independent audits of final results.
Election tampering has, unfortunately, become a political issue, with some Republicans worried that any admission of Russian efforts in 2016 would delegitimize Donald Trump’s election as president. This consideration may well have been part of the calculus baked into foreign election interference, but it is dangerous for national security.
The election-related bills Democrats are sponsoring should not be considered final versions. If McConnell would allow debate, they could be tempered by Republican concerns, leading to compromise legislation that helps states deal with an enormous task in a reasonable way.
The genius of the U.S. election system is that it is spread among more than 3,000 counties, parishes and boroughs, each with its own voting procedures and methods. This makes the wholesale hacking of a national election in the United States complicated and difficult.
But many states and counties are strapped for cash and continue to use antiquated equipment. A lot of the electronic voting machines, including those in Utah’s largest counties, are not connected to the internet and require a separate transfer system for moving results from machines to central tallying points. But in many places, including Utah, databases containing voter registration information are more vulnerable, although security measures are in place.
One more thing — if the United States is to protect itself thoroughly from foreign interference, Washington has to be as clear as possible about the threats and the recommended counter-procedures. Much of the report this week was blacked out for national security reasons, including recommendations. The New York Times reported that one section was titled only, “Build a Credible ...,” with the rest of that sentence and the next two paragraphs stricken.
Future reports are pending regarding Russian interference through social media. We hope these are more explicit and helpful.
Regardless, no election official or politicians in the land should be ignorant of the ongoing assaults on the nation’s complicated election system. The nation’s enemies understand well that public trust is vital to the operation of any free and democratic society. The question is whether the United States can rise above its petty political squabbles to understand this, as well.