IT IS obvious to all but the willfully ignorant that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. What is less obvious is what this country is going to do about it. So far, the signs have pointed to: not nearly enough. A report from scholars at Stanford University offers one road map — and shows how the nation remains shockingly near the beginning of the road.
The Stanford report includes 45 recommendations for protecting the U.S. democratic process. Some three years after Vladimir Putin’s government planted trolls and bots on social media sites to propagandize for Donald Trump, hacked into the emails of officials on Hillary Clinton’s campaign and probed election infrastructure for vulnerabilities, the president’s team has not pursued a single one of them. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continues to block even the consideration of stand-alone legislation that would bolster election security.
The refusal to act is dangerous. Though Russia infiltrated voting networks in 2016, there is no evidence any machines were tampered with or votes changed. Next time, we might not be so fortunate. The government must mandate voter-verified paper trails for auditing elections after the fact, but systems also need to be secure in the first place: Third-party code inspections and probes for vulnerabilities by hired ethical hackers would help. Political parties should be allowed to assist their state affiliates, as well as candidates and campaigns, in beefing up cybersecurity. Legislation to this effect is pending in both chambers of Congress. It just isn’t going anywhere.
Measures also could be taken to hamper Russia’s efforts to manipulate the American public online. Foreign states and individuals should be barred from purchasing online advertisements intended to influence the electorate, even when they are not expressly advocating for or against a candidate. Something like the Honest Ads Act is also necessary to require that platforms reveal who paid for political ads that do run — using the names of responsible individuals, rather than only opaque organizations. Social media sites should establish an official body to coordinate with each other and the government about threats, which might require a law lowering the barriers to sharing information.
All this is only a start, and it represents but a handful of those 45 recommendations the Stanford report authors have to offer, yet it is still bounds beyond what the government has managed so far. The United States has not given Russia or any other would-be meddler any real reason to stop meddling. It would help, of course, to have a president willing to admit the problem instead of papering it over with the chief perpetrator. It is a dereliction of duty for Congress and the administration not to take up on a most urgent basis the defense of the nation’s democratic process.