The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our next election is dangerously vulnerable, a top Democrat warns. Does Trump care?

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump is set to meet with Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 this week, and one big question is whether Trump will warn the Russian leader against launching another attack on our political system.

We can guess the answer to that — he won’t, because he stands to benefit. But that should renew attention to the steps we could be taking to fortify our elections against outside interference, but aren’t, largely because Trump doesn’t want us to, and because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is blocking many such efforts.

The causes for worry are mounting. The Post fact-checking team just published a useful guide to understanding the serious threat posed by video manipulation tactics designed to spread disinformation — including “deepfakes.” It’s not hard to imagine the tactic roiling the presidential race in, say, October 2020.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, has played a lead role in studying the threat of more election interference. Wyden and 14-co-sponsors have introduced the Protecting American Votes and Elections Act, or PAVE Act, which would mandate paper ballots and strict election cybersecurity standards.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

I spoke to Wyden about his worries. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

The Plum Line: What do you fear most in elections to come?

Wyden: As of today, the election interference of 2020 by hostile foreign powers — and I’m not just talking about the Russians — is going to make 2016 look like small potatoes.

Plum Line: You know this from intelligence you’ve seen?

Wyden: I’m on the Intelligence Committee. I can’t get into classified matters. But as of right now, there’s going to be more election interference in 2020. Messing with voter registration databases and election reporting websites. Hacking and dumping emails. They’re gonna go after social media.

The voting machine companies have long made their money by selling insecure voting machines. Now they’re going to barcodes and hybrids and the like, which make them money but don’t give us security.

FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub: Foreign spending in our elections is a threat to our national sovereignty

Plum Line: What is the single biggest thing we can do to secure our elections against these threats?

Wyden: Pass the PAVE Act. It requires hand-marked paper ballots. It makes it harder to hack, and easier to do a manual recount. Then you have required cyber-audits after an election to determine who interfered.

You also have required cybersecurity measures so that you don’t have, for example, an open voting machine connection to the Internet with wireless.

This is a national security challenge. Trump has been AWOL. McConnell has opposed every single election reform almost since the Earth cooled.

We’ve got a four-month window. You’ve got to have it up and running by October of 2019 to be ready by October 2020. The general feeling among election security experts is that local jurisdictions need a year to get ready.

Plum Line: Let’s say the bill doesn’t go through. Are there really serious grounds for fearing a hacking of the votes themselves?

Wyden: Unless you have a forensic analysis, nobody really can tell you whether votes were changed. We would provide money for cybersecurity audits.

And you don’t need to hack votes to cause chaos. If you’re altering voter registration data to suppress votes, you’re on your way to faking the election.

Plum Line: How does the PAVE Act deal with that?

Wyden: The third part of the package — cybersecurity hygiene — makes it tougher to hack voter registration systems and E-poll books and the like.

Republicans want to make these changes voluntary. Republican governors — who already have done everything they can to suppress the vote — will say, “Nothing has to change around here.”

My proposal is mandatory. It’s mandatory to have hand-marked paper ballots, audits and cybersecurity.

Plum Line: Intelligence indicates a serious concern about this type of hacking, such as efforts to tamper with voter registration data by foreign powers?

Wyden: The intelligence leadership said, “Hey, there’s red lights blaring here!” Those are all areas I think are very vulnerable.

Plum Line: There seems to be a movement underway among some state Democratic Party chairs to create a partywide stance, under which all Democratic candidates would pledge not to use hacked or illicit data or disinformation. Do you think the national party should adopt that position?

Wyden: Yes. If you’re going to have the strongest possible deterrent, you need all hands rowing. It’s important to send that signal.

Plum Line: How seriously do we need to take worries that we could see a serious deepfake video against the Democratic nominee in October 2020?

Wyden: There are lots of different types of dirty tricks to be concerned about. Put that on the list, too.

Plum Line: Beyond the obvious importance of securing our elections, aren’t we talking about a much bigger global showdown? Illiberal authoritarianism is working to undermine liberal democracy. Can you talk about the role of disinformation and efforts to sabotage elections in that larger context?

Wyden: Authoritarians all over the world are pulling out all the stops to roll back the liberal democratic order. There is no guarantee that democracy is going to be the same when they’re done.

Putin is trying to undermine support for democracy by interfering in our elections and across Europe. China is pushing authoritarian quasi-capitalism and trying to sell the proposition that surveillance and repression are more stable than open societies.

And you have demagogues in Europe stoking nationalism, playing on victimhood, exploiting fears of immigrants and trade. Some nationalist movements have increasing links to American hate groups.

Plum Line: It seems as if the tide is really rising.

Wyden: That’s why it’s so important to understand that the reforms that we’d make would protect us, but also help to turn the tide against authoritarians around the world.

The Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once said, “Americans always get it right — after they’ve tried everything else.” We’re seeing the “everything else” right now.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Russia’s election interference is no longer a surprise. It should still infuriate.

The Post’s View: We still have questions about whether Russia meddled in N.C. That’s a bad sign.

Christian Caryl: Europe is sending us a warning for 2020. Will we listen?

Michael McFaul: Trump needs to stop siding with our adversaries against other Americans

Max Boot and Max Bergmann: Our elections are still vulnerable to Russian interference

Jason Rezaian: The State Department has been funding trolls. I’m one of their targets.