The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We still don’t know what happened in the 2016 election

Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the 2016 U.S. elections.
Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the 2016 U.S. elections. (Jon Elswick/AP)

IT TOOK three years for Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) to find out that Russian actors had hacked into her state’s voting systems ahead of the 2016 presidential election. First she was unaware the Kremlin had penetrated any counties, then she heard it was two, and now new intelligence suggests four jurisdictions might have been breached. The public has even less information than she does — because, as she explained in a Post op-ed, she is not allowed to share much of what she learns.

Ms. Murphy’s experience of finding out about Russian interference mirrors the country’s. Law enforcement indicated two states had been targeted, then 21, and then, this summer, a Senate report revealed that all 50 were probed. Investigators have uncovered no evidence the hackers actually tampered with votes, but even that is uncertain in jurisdictions without paper ballots to back up the count. Americans still don’t know what they don’t know about Russian interference.

Sign up to receive Opinions pieces in your inbox six days a week

The slow drip of revelations points to a mess of problems in how the federal government communicates with its on-the-ground partners in charge of running elections. Mismatches in security clearances, for example, led to state and localities learning too little too late. The Florida case is especially perplexing, and infuriating: The FBI says county officials are legally entitled to confidentiality about breaches as the victims of a crime, even when it comes to information that is not classified. The goal is to encourage cybercrime targets to report security ruptures without worrying about the consequences of being exposed. But this regime leaves the real victims — the voters — without recourse.

Ms. Murphy now has the names of at least some of the compromised counties in her state, only because she and her colleagues read special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report and demanded a briefing. But she has been barred from sharing those names with her constituents. So has Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). And what about other states whose representatives do not even have enough information today to ask? Leaders at the Capitol and in state capitals can’t protect the next election if they do not know what went wrong last time, and citizens cannot hold representatives accountable for shortcomings if the shortcomings are hushed up.

Ms. Murphy has introduced a bipartisan bill ensuring that Congress, state leaders and affected voters learn of significant intrusions into election systems. Legislators should pass it as a first step in rethinking reporting requirements throughout the government. Doing something about foreign meddling will be impossible unless those responsible for fighting back can say something about it.

Read more:

Stephanie Murphy: Why is the Russian meddling in 2016 such a big secret? I’m not allowed to say.

The Post’s View: The U.S. government needs to protect against 2020 election meddling

Brian Klaas: Trump is holding election security hostage

Frida Ghitis: What do Republicans have against secure elections?

Michael McFaul: A high-level Senate report confirms it: Our elections still aren’t safe