The Crisis of Election Security
Robert Mueller made clear the bottom line of his investigation: Russia attacked our democracy — and, as he said, every American should focus on that. Instead, recent news reports reveal that the Department of Homeland Security wasn't even allowed to bring up the threat of election attacks with President Trump. As candidates hit the 2020 campaign trail, what should the United States be doing to protect the core of our democracy?
Gone are the days when the best way to influence an election was to stuff ballot boxes. New tools give malevolent actors cheap and easy methods of sowing distrust around the electoral process, says former secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson:
Johnson breaks down threats to our elections into three categories: tampering with election infrastructure, the weaponization of hacked information, and directed misinformation campaigns.
Although the US has been exalted throughout its history as a model for the democratic process, the 2016 election made it clear how vulnerable US elections are to outside influence. Douglas Lute, former US ambassador to NATO, frames Russian interference in the 2016 election as a test of their abilities, not a one-off attack.
Big IdeaIt only takes the manipulation of a few key precincts in a few key states to perhaps swing a national election.Jeh Johnson
Both the nature of misinformation campaigns and the reluctance of some US politicians to take seriously the threat posed by election meddling means that when (not if, according to Lute) Russia interferes again they will have a proven blueprint.
Russia’s influence in the US elections has dominated headlines, but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly special. Douglas Lute and Katie Harbath make a compelling case for contextualizing Russian interference in US elections as once instance of a very troubling trend:
This exchange has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas Lute: This is not just a bilateral issue, this is not just Russia as an attacker. We’re kind of fixated on that shiny object. But China, Iran, and North Korea also have state-led, meaningful capabilities in this realm, and America is not the only democracy that’s under assault and vulnerable …... We should appreciate that democracy, even outside the US, is under assault by a lot of bad actors.
Katie Harbath: To your point, everyone’s been fixated on Russia and now everyone thinks Russia is trying to infiltrate their elections. But every country really does have unique challenges to their own democracy, and different laws. Not all countries ban foreign donations in their elections. We [Facebook] ran into an interesting case with the EU elections, where we decided to not allow cross-border advertising. Some countries within the EU allow foreign funding of candidates, and so it could be very easy for a state actor to fund that candidate and then they run ads from that country into, let’s say, Germany or France.
Facebook is a global institution, and misinformation doesn’t respect geopolitical boundaries. Protecting the integrity of elections from insidious new methods is a concern that will likely plague democracies for years to come.