The Kremlin Is Back, and U.S. Elections Aren’t Ready

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to a question during his annual news conference in Moscow

President Trump may dismiss Russian interference in the U.S. election as “fake news,” but top officials in his own administration are not so sanguine.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson already sees signs that Russia is trying to interfere in the 2018 midterms, he told Fox News this week. Tillerson’s disclosure came on the heels of an equally bleak assessment from CIA Director Mike Pompeo last month. Asked by the BBC whether Russia would target the U.S. midterms, Pompeo replied: “Of course. I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that.”

One might expect such high-level warnings to spur action on Capitol Hill, where foreign election interference has historically alarmed both parties. Instead, Republicans have become so consumed with protecting Trump from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe that they’ve effectively scuttled several common-sense bills that would help secure the nation’s elections.

On Thursday, House Democrats called for immediate hearings on cybersecurity threats to the election system, and Senate Democrats took to the floor to castigate Trump for not doing enough to protect the elections infrastructure. Fourteen watchdog and election reform advocacy groups also wrote House Speaker Paul Ryan to express “deep concern” over his failure to take action to “protect the nation’s security, the integrity of our presidential and congressional elections, and the interests of the American people.”

Lawmakers have held hearings and introduced bills focused on foreign meddling, but don’t expect action before the midterms, or even by 2020. GOP leaders have taken their cue from Trump, who dismisses the entire notion of Russian meddling as a political “witch hunt.” Only one Republican, Senator John McCain, of Arizona, has signed onto a carefully drawn bill that would shed light on digital political ads, which Russians used to distribute disinformation to millions of Americans in 2016. A smattering of Republicans have joined Democrats in forwarding several other election security bills, but GOP leaders have made no move to advance them.

“Various solutions have been proposed but none has been adopted, and the clock is ticking,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, on a recent conference call to release a CLC report on foreign election interference. “Unfortunately, this matter of foreign interference has been swept into the vortex of partisan discord. And Congress’s failure to respond to the events in 2016 leaves us vulnerable this year and in 2020.”

The CLC’s report, which documents secret foreign spending on campaigns and digital ads, as well as attempted election system hacking, is one of several that spotlights regulatory and legal weaknesses that make the U.S. vulnerable to Russia and other foreign actors. A January 10 report released by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee details a two decades-long assault on democratic institutions by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his own country, in the U.S., and across Europe, using military incursions, cyberattacks, and disinformation.

Despite the clear assaults on our democracy and our allies in Europe, the U.S. government still does not have a coherent, comprehensive, and coordinated approach to the Kremlin’s malign influence operations, either abroad or at home,” warns the report, which was commissioned by the committee’s ranking Democrat, Maryland’s Ben Cardin.

Election experts stress that there’s no evidence that the Kremlin succeeded in altering voting tallies in 2016, though Department of Homeland Security officials have testified that Russia-linked hackers targeted election systems in as many as 21 states. And despite congressional paralysis, state election officials have taken significant steps to protect their voting machines and databases from hacking, often in tandem with DHS, which designated the nation’s election systems as critical infrastructure shortly before President Trump took office in January of 2017.

Nevertheless, “the threat is real,” according to David Becker, who founded and heads the Center for Election Innovation and Research. A report scheduled for release on Monday by the Center for American Progress concludes that security weaknesses exist in every single state, despite recent strides. Many states have replaced vulnerable touch-screen machines with voting systems that produce a paper trail that can be verified by voters, for example, or instituted post-election audits, but gaps remain.

“There are vulnerabilities in election infrastructure in all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” says Danielle Root, CAP’s voting rights manager. States tend to do well in some areas but not others, notes Root. “It’s clear that election officials are taking this issue incredibly seriously,” she adds. “But there remains room for improvement in every single state.”

What states need more than anything is money—the kind of money that Congress doled out in federal grants via the 2002 Help America Vote Act, following the contested 2000 presidential election. Back then, Democrats and Republicans came together to send more than $3 billion to the states to upgrade their dilapidated voting machines and make other election system improvements.

It would cost far less than that—an estimated $1.25 billion over a ten-year period—to defend states from future cyberattacks, according to a CAP analysis released last year. That calculation projects that it would cost $1 billion to upgrade voting machines, $5 million a year to assess cyber-threats to voter registration databases, and $20 million to conduct post-election audits nationwide.

A bipartisan bill introduced in December by Senate Republican James Lankford, of Oklahoma, would go a long way to achieving those goals. It would give states federal grants to phase out all paperless voting machines, facilitate information sharing between state and federal officials about cyberattacks and security threats, and encourage post-election audits based on statistical sampling.

These are the precisely the kinds of fixes that voting experts hold up as the gold standard in election security. But so far, Lankford’s Election Security Act has only five cosponsors. The Democrats are Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, California’s Kamala Harris, and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico. The other Republicans are Susan Collins of Maine and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham.

In 2002, the Help America Vote Act passed the Senate by 92-2. Sixteen years later, Republican leaders treat any legislation that includes Democratic cosponsors as radioactive. When Russia or another foreign player inevitably strikes again, the GOP will have only itself to blame. As Cardin said on releasing his report: “Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a U.S. president.”


This post has been updated.

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