Special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals for operations that interfered in our election and sought to boost Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is big news. But it is even bigger news that Dan Coats, the Trump administration’s director of national intelligence, said: “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives that its past efforts have been successful and views the 2018 midterm U.S. elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.”
“Frankly,” Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee several days before Mueller’s indictments were announced, “the United States is under attack.”
No one knows how far those efforts will go — whether they will continue to target voters via social media or whether meddling might focus on the actual machinery of elections. But, according to a classified intelligence report obtained last year by The Intercept, the National Security Agency has for some time been examining attempts by Russian intelligence to mount cyber assaults on elements of the U.S. election and voting infrastructure in 2016.
If past is prologue, then how can U.S. officials fail to take necessary steps to defend the basic infrastructure of fair and functional elections?
Congressman Mark Pocan, the Wisconsin Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has an answer. “It is abundantly clear that we need to get ahead of anyone wanting to interfere with our elections,” said Pocan. “We need better protections for our elections, including paper ballots for our voting machines.”
While other members of Congress are beginning to wrestle with essential election integrity questions, Pocan and several colleagues have introduced groundbreaking legislation that gets to the heart of the matter. Their Securing America’s Future Elections (SAFE) Act would safeguard U.S. elections from cyber threats and interference by permanently classifying the integrity and security of elections as a component of the country’s critical infrastructure.
Arguing that the United States needs “a comprehensive approach to secure our election process from start to finish,” Pocan said when the SAFE Act was introduced last year: “By making our elections a top national security priority, we can ensure cybersecurity standards for voting systems are upgraded and require paper ballots with all electronic voting machines. One thing Democrats and Republicans should agree on is that we should be doing everything in our power to guarantee the sovereignty of our country and the integrity of our elections. This bill will do just that.”
The SAFE Act is not the final answer to concerns about election integrity and the many challenges facing American democracy. However, it is a practical point of beginning. And with the Mueller indictments and the testimony from Coats, it is time for Congress to take a more serious look at the bill.
This legislation is about more than Russian intrigues. It is, as well, a response to a wrongheaded attempt last year by the Republicans on the House Administration Committee to shut down the Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency created to help states update election systems and security. The SAFE Act reauthorizes the EAC for a period of 10 years and requires a random audit of precincts/wards in each state to ensure there are no discrepancies between paper ballots and electronic ballots.
“Few things are as critical as the integrity of our elections, which is why we must protect one of our most sacred institutions from foreign powers and domestic hackers who seek to undermine and influence our democratic process,” said Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, a co-sponsor of the measure. “The SAFE Act makes our elections a top national security priority, creates cybersecurity standards to protect our voting systems, and ensures accountability to voters. The American people must have full confidence that their votes are protected and counted.”
To create that confidence the SAFE Act would:
1. Permanently classify the security and integrity of our elections as essential to the United States’ national security interests and allow the Department of Homeland Security to designate election infrastructure as critical infrastructure. This includes storage facilities, polling places, vote tabulation locations, voter databases, voting machines, and other systems that manage the election process. This important classification would place election systems in the same category as other critical infrastructure including the power grid, the banking system, and other utilities.
2. Authorize the necessary funding for upgrading cybersecurity standards of voting systems, including the software used to operate such systems, and to ensure the security of the manufacturing processes for such components through collaboration with the National Institute for Standards in Technology and the Department of Homeland Security. The bill will also ensure cybersecurity for all voter registration databases.
3. Require NIST and DHS to create basic cybersecurity standards for private companies contracted to work on election systems in the U.S.
4. Require all electronic voting machines to have a corresponding paper ballot. The Election Assistance Commission would be required to randomly audit 5 percent of wards/precincts in each state to ensure that there are no discrepancies between paper ballots and electronic ballots.
5. Reauthorize the EAC for a period of 10 years. The EAC is the most well-equipped agency to deal with election technology issues, such as software patches, for voting machines from private vendors. Eliminating this crucial agency would create an easily exploitable opportunity for hackers.
6. Require the DHS to conduct a review of election systems yearly beginning in 2018.
It’s 2018. It’s time to act because, as Pocan said: “Not acting now will only lead to repeated interference.”
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising. Nichols is the co-author, along with Dave Zweifel, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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