Imagine we are four years in the future and the following things had happened to our democratic process in the United States. China’s Communist Party leadership, angry with President Donald Trump for his trade war and his efforts to contain China’s technology theft and geopolitical rise, intervened massively in the 2020 elections to tilt the outcome to the Democrats, knocking huge swaths of suburban Republican voters off the voter rolls in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and Arizona. There is convincing evidence that the Democratic nominee knew China was trying to intervene to help her win the presidency, and that she welcomed it. Studying carefully the American electoral landscape, the Chinese Communist Party’s digital assault on the 2020 election wreaked havoc on the U.S. Senate elections as well, strategically purging rural voters from the voter registration databases and defeating incumbent Republican Senators in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Montana, North Carolina, and—most shockingly—Kentucky, where the incumbent Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell went down to defeat. As a result, despite vehement Republican denunciations of foreign interference in our electoral process, Democrats not only won the White House and held the House, but took control of the Senate as well.
Now it is 2023. Republicans are demanding federal government action to support technically besieged electoral administrations at the state and county levels. A bill is proposed in the U.S. Senate, with bipartisan support, to provide urgent assistance to state and local electoral administrations, and to require election campaigns to report to the FBI any evidence of foreign tampering with the electoral processes. But Senator Chuck Schumer, affecting the “What, me worry?” posture of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, sits on the bill, suggesting it isn’t needed. Privately, many Democrats think, well, foreign interference worked out okay for us last time. . .and the Republicans had it coming. All is fair in love and politics.
Now, ask yourself this question: How long would it be before outraged militant partisans of the defeated Republican Party would be out in the streets threatening a rain of fire and brimstone if the election security bill didn’t pass? Come to think of it, what kind of furious and possibly even violent protests would have followed the controversy over the manipulated 2020 election results?
If you change China to Russia and Democrats to Republicans, you have a pretty accurate and frightening depiction of the gathering threat to electoral democracy in the United States—and a baffling puzzle as to why Democrats are not more enraged by the foot-dragging of the Trump Administration and its congressional allies over election security.
As the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and many other accounts have shown, not only did Russia wage a relentless and far-reaching digital campaign to sow discord in American politics and try to swing the election to Donald Trump, but Trump and his campaign encouraged the interference. In fact, to quote former U.S. attorney Barbara L. McQuade, Mueller’s testimony to Congress on Wednesday showed “that Russia committed crimes to help elect Trump, that Trump welcomed the help and that he then lied about it.”
Even before the November 2016 election, James Comey testified that Russian hackers had sought entry into the voter registration databases of roughly half the states. Now, in its own report on the 2016 election interference, released yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that the early reports vastly underestimated the scope of Russian efforts. In fact, the Committee finds, Russian hackers probably tried to access the election systems in all 50 states. And it reaffirms what election security experts have been saying for years: Our system of electoral administration, dependent as it is on the poorly coordinated efforts of numerous state and local authorities, and often on outmoded technology as well, is vulnerable to subversion. In 2016, it appears, Russia was engaged in a reconnaissance mission to map the complex infrastructure of election administration in the United States, and to look for vulnerabilities. As Mueller warned in his testimony on Wednesday—and as FBI Director Christopher Wray has been warning repeatedly, as recently as Tuesday—Russian intelligence and hacking operations to interfere with our elections are continuing without pause. In 2020, it is unlikely they will be entering these systems merely to have a look around.
Given the urgency and breadth with which law enforcement and intelligence officials have been warning about the threat of Russian hacking of the 2020 election infrastructure, it is difficult to summon a benign interpretation of Republican obstruction. On Wednesday, Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith blocked consideration of two bills so modest and simple that you just have to shake your head in asking about the zero-sum nature of partisan combat on Capitol Hill, “Has it come to this?” One bill, sponsored by Senate Intelligence Committee Vice-Chair, Mark Warner, would require campaigns to alert the FBI and the Federal Election Commission when foreign actors offer them financial or other assistance; the other—co-sponsored by Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Tom Cotton (a prominent Trump ally)— would allow the Senate Sergeant at Arms to offer voluntary assistance to senators and staff to improve the security of their digital devices. If this obstruction is not Congressional fiddling while Rome is waiting to burn, it is hard to imagine what that would look like.
The grand architect of this obstruction, Senate Majority Leader McConnell, has offered multiple excuses for the foot-dragging:
- States have already been allocated funds and don’t need any more. Yes, the Congress appropriated $380 million last year to help states upgrade their voter registration systems, voting machines, and procedures for post-election audits, but this was only about 10 percent of what the Congress appropriated to upgrade systems in 2002, and well below the current estimated need. As Wendy Weiser and Alicia Bannon reported in a study by the Brennan Center for Justice last year, “41 states will use systems that are at least a decade old this November , and officials in 33 say they must replace their machines by 2020.”
- All these bills are just partisan grandstanding. In fact, many of them have bipartisan support, but McConnell is nevertheless blocking all of them. For example, the DETER Act, co-sponsored by Donald Trump’s new senatorial best friend, Lindsay Graham, and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, would allow federal officials to deport any foreigner found to be involved in election interference. And the new (heavily redacted) first volume of the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee is a bipartisan document, issued by two sober congressional leaders, Senator Warner and Committee Chair Richard Burr, who have modeled bipartisan cooperation.
- Electoral administration is a state and local responsibility and should not be “federalized.” But we are talking here about support and technical assistance and advice, not federal administration of elections (which would, in any case, be a vast improvement over the current mishmash, and would bring the United States into line with the best practices of other advanced democracies).
The simple truth is we cannot continue to creep by with the current antiquated patchwork of infrastructure and standards, and a laissez-faire attitude of complacency that things are bound to be okay simply because we are such a great democracy. Precisely because of its decentralization and inadequate coordination, and because of chronic under-investment and technical neglect, our electoral infrastructure has certain vulnerabilities that many other advanced democracies do not. States need greater federal technical assistance and financial support. And the Department of Homeland Security needs a signal of urgency and all-out mission from the Administration that it has not gotten (instead, something closer to the inverse prevails).
As I stress in my new book, Ill Winds, much more needs to be done to secure American elections against Russian—and other foreign—interference, and to safeguard the integrity and reliability of our voting systems. A report last month of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies recommended (among other things) a much more robust federal government role to assist and train state and local government officials in cybersecurity and to “signal a clear and credible commitment to respond to election interference.” And it echoed previous studies in urging that all elections have a verifiable paper trail and risk-limiting audits (as a group of Democratic senators proposed legislation to require last year). These principles underlie many of the Congressional initiatives that are now bottled up in the Senate.
In the short run, President Trump and his party may benefit from this cynical posture of calculated complacency. In 2020 the Russians may once again be the only or at least the main foreign actor interfering in American elections. And there can be do no doubt that they will do so in an effort to help re-elect President Donald Trump. But if one foreign power continues to shred, on an ever-more daring basis, the integrity and inviolability of our electoral process, other foreign powers will draw lessons and follow. And they won’t all be pitching in on the Republican side. Mitch McConnell is playing with fire. And the future of our democracy is at stake.