The panel on Tuesday released preliminary recommendations on election security, the first of several documents the committee will release on Russia’s meddling in the country’s elections. It will take some time to get the committee’s full analysis, which must undergo declassification review. But with primary elections already starting, acting on the recommendations is urgent.
The topmost concern must be preventing the Russians from accessing voter databases or voting tallies. Federal officials have concluded that the Russians attempted in 2016 to breach election systems in 21 states and succeeded in compromising at least one. No votes were changed — but, as Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) remarked at a Wednesday Intelligence Committee hearing, “What it looks like is a test.”
The committee concluded, therefore, that “states should rapidly replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems,” recommending machines with “a voter-verified paper trail and no WiFi capability.” States replaced many voting machines after the 2000 election controversy, a generation of systems that is showing its age. States should also begin conducting routine post-election audits designed to detect fraud. According to a report House Democrats released last month, the audits that some states currently conduct are not properly designed.
Lawmakers set aside $380 million in their massive new spending bill to help states harden their election infrastructure. This is helpful, but, according to the House Democrats’ report, it may not quite cover the cost of replacing voting machines that need to be retired, let alone hiring more IT staff and upgrading software. If more federal money is not forthcoming, states may have to chip in, too.
Moreover, the senators insisted that the Trump administration must do a better job assisting the states with cyberthreats. In response to their criticisms, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at a Wednesday hearing that the government is in the process of getting state officials security clearances so they can view classified information. This should have been done last year.
Yet the Trump administration’s most glaring failure starts with President Trump himself. “The U.S. Government should clearly communicate to adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act, and we will respond accordingly,” the senators argued. But no foreign foe watching Mr. Trump’s behavior over the past two years would expect a severe White House reaction to further election interference. That is particularly true of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has gotten the kid-gloves treatment from Mr. Trump despite the U.S. intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion that the Kremlin was behind the plot to meddle in the 2016 race and continues to pose a grave threat. Even the anti-Russian
sanctions the administration recently announced were far too limited.
In the absence of strong presidential leadership, Congress and the states will have to fill the gap as best they can.