The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We must protect our elections now. National security is at stake.

A woman fills out her ballot in a privacy booth while voting in the gubernatorial election in Newark on Nov. 2. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
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James R. Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, was director of national intelligence in the Obama administration. Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force four-star general, was director of the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005 and principal deputy director of national intelligence in the George W. Bush administration. He was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009. The views expressed here are theirs alone and do not imply endorsement by any U.S. government agency.

By now, it is well documented that in 2020 a sitting president and his allies tried to overturn the results of an election, triggering the worst political violence this country has seen in living memory. It is also clear that this attempt to undermine our democracy did not end with the transition to a new president, but continues with active efforts to make sure the next sabotage succeeds where the last one failed. What is less widely understood — and what keeps us up at night — is how great a threat these activities pose to our national security.

This looming crisis is why we, along with nearly 100 other former national security and military officials, issued a statement urging Congress to prioritize protecting election integrity. We both served at the highest levels of our country’s intelligence community, under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, and we know that our foreign adversaries and other bad actors are licking their chops as they watch efforts to destabilize our elections.

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At the heart of the attack is a homegrown disinformation campaign meant to sow doubt in the U.S. voting system. Unfortunately, it is working — poll after poll shows declining trust in our elections and declining belief in the concept of democracy, particularly among Republicans. And these effects will not be contained to our borders.

We have personally seen the lengths to which our foreign adversaries will go to take advantage of any cracks in the foundation of our democracy. One of us was director of national intelligence during the period leading up to the 2016 presidential vote and saw firsthand how Russia used social media to exploit disinformation, polarization and divisiveness. The Russians' objective was to breed discord, and they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. Now others have gone to school on the Russian example and will seek to prey on our country’s state of affairs in just the same way.

Unfortunately, adversaries are finding increasingly fertile ground for their efforts. A society struggling to separate fact from fiction is the perfect environment for these actors to further erode electoral trust and kick democracy into a death spiral. They might also seek to take advantage of the exposure of sensitive information about election equipment or voter data that resulted from recent hyper-partisan election “reviews” such as Arizona’s, as well as the inevitable decline in security that will accompany the mass exodus of expert election officials facing violent threats. And if disinformation leads to more political violence like we saw on Jan. 6 — as seems increasingly likely — you can bet the house that enemies abroad will be ready to seize on the resulting chaos.

There are also serious foreign policy consequences to this crisis. The United States’ power since World War II has come not just from our military might but also from the political stability and economic prosperity a thriving democracy provides. America stood as a model and inspiration for other countries, exercising the kind of soft power that drives diplomacy and encourages the spread of democracy around the world. But the once-high regard for American democracy is in steep decline, and with it America’s global influence and moral authority.

While the situation is dire, it is far from hopeless. There are clear and simple steps the Biden administration and Congress must take now to harden our defenses against the risk posed by election destabilization.

To its credit, the administration recognizes that preserving our democracy is a national security imperative. It is convening a Summit for Democracy next month that should promote not just voting rights and election integrity but also executive branch accountability and civic education and engagement. For its part, the Justice Department should continue to seek accountability for the Jan. 6 attack, and must do more to prosecute those who unlawfully intimidate election officials. If we fail to hold these people accountable in the present, we invite similar efforts in the future.

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Meanwhile, Congress must provide adequate funding to state and local governments to help them secure their election infrastructure against malicious foreign and domestic actors. Legislators should also immediately enact safeguards we know will make our federal elections more resilient, such as paper ballots to facilitate result verification in the event of a dispute or attempted sabotage. Other necessary measures include requirements for protecting ballots and election equipment, as well as election workers, and meaningful penalties for attempts to violate such laws or manipulate an election. Some of these proposals have already been introduced in Congress; there is no excuse to delay.

Three decades ago, the promise of American democracy helped us prevail in the Cold War. Today, our enemies can smell the weakness in our political system, and they will be ready to exploit it. We must be prepared to meet that threat — for our national security, for our democracy and for the future of our country.