Argument

America’s Elections Are Under Threat—and Congress Is Being Bypassed

The Trump administration’s decision to scale back briefings on election security needs to be reversed. Here’s how to do it.

Voters cast ballots in the Michigan primary election in Detroit on March 10.
Voters cast ballots in the Michigan primary election in Detroit on March 10. JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The decision by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) that it will no longer brief the House and Senate intelligence committees on matters of election security is an abdication of its duty to inform Congress. The 2016 elections made clear that the United States is not immune to interference in its elections. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report noted the “sweeping and systematic fashion” in which Russia interfered in the 2016 election, highlighting the scope of the challenge to protect U.S. elections. With another presidential election around the corner and reports of Russian interference already underway, the urgency to get this right has never been so clear.

Ensuring that elections are secure should not be a partisan issue—and it’s just the baseline for what needs to be done. The ODNI’s decision to shift to written briefings puts significant limits on the ability of lawmakers—on both sides of the aisle—to ask questions of intelligence officials and communicate to the American people important information about the upcoming election. This decision threatens to undermine the vote and voice of every American citizen.

President Donald Trump has in recent weeks launched attacks on mail-in voting and the U.S. Postal Service, raising questions about the sanctity of the country’s political process. By canceling all briefings on election security, the Trump administration now seeks to keep Congress in the dark too. If the American people lose confidence in the election, democracy falls apart. Every elected official in this country should prioritize ensuring election security ahead of November and beyond.

Ensuring that elections are secure should not be a partisan issue.

There are five steps the federal government should take to protect the election.

First, every congressional leader should step up to demand that the Trump administration reverse this decision and push the ODNI to immediately schedule briefings in front of the House and Senate intelligence committees to inform Congress about the security of U.S. elections. While this issue may seem divided along party lines, such a move is in fact politically advantageous at an individual level: After all, every congressional leader has a vested interest in ensuring the electoral process is secure. If the Trump administration doesn’t reverse this decision, the House should move to subpoena intelligence officials to testify on election security before the November vote.

Second, the federal government must take decisive action to protect against attacks from foreign actors before Election Day. The U.S. government needs to communicate to Russia and other adversaries that interference in its elections represents a dangerous attack on the United States and will be responded to with severe consequences. Polling has indicated that a majority of Americans have concerns about election security. Trump has a personal interest in mitigating these concerns—a fact that lawmakers should publicly remind him of, especially given his recent focus on domestic law and order—by calling out Russia loudly and clearly and with warnings of severe repercussions if interference is detected.

Third, Congress should provide emergency funding to support election security. With reports of interference underway, every elected representative should be invested in maintaining the trust of the American people and ensuring that they have faith in the electoral process. Emergency funding would support state and local governments ahead of Election Day to ensure they have the resources necessary to protect against cyberattacks. The Mueller report highlighted that Russian hackers targeted election technology firms and county officials who are responsible for administering the vote. These officials are vulnerable because, in many cases, they lack the resources to hire staff with expertise in cybersecurity. In the coming weeks, states must hire additional information technology staff, update software, and work to secure election websites that provide information on mail-in ballots, early voting, polling locations and times, as well as registration status. States should work to secure against potential attacks on election night reporting systems and protect against attempts to take down websites providing critical election information.

Fourth, the federal government should work with industry partners to identify and counter imminent disinformation threats on the internet. In the short term, the intelligence community and the consumer internet industry must work together to effectively tackle acute disinformation threats as they arise. Internet platforms can benefit from the intelligence agencies’ capacities in information sharing and analysis. Congressional leaders in the House and Senate should lead the effort to question ODNI about efforts to work with technology companies to combat disinformation ahead of the election.

Finally, the American people should be made aware of all threats to their elections. The Trump administration and members of Congress should communicate to the public what Americans should be concerned about and what efforts are being taken to secure the elections.

ODNI’s decision to cancel all election security briefings keeps the American people in the dark, leaving voters unsure of whether foreign actors may be attempting to interfere in the election. Congress must immediately be briefed on election security, and the Trump administration needs to step up to protect the world’s biggest election in 2020—the stakes are simply too high.

Loully Saney is a former Senate staffer to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.

Dipayan Ghosh is a co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School and served as an economic advisor in the Obama White House.

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