Special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments last week of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 US election campaign is big news. But it is even bigger news that Dan Coats, the Trump administration’s director of national intelligence, says, “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives that its past efforts have been successful and views the 2018 midterm US elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.”
“Frankly,” Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee several days before Mueller’s indictments were announced, “the United States is under attack.”
No one knows how far those efforts will go—whether they will continue to target voters via social media or whether meddling might focus on the actual machinery of elections. But, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained last year by The Intercept, “Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one US voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before [the 2016 presidential election].”
It’s not just the Russians. Concerns about the vulnerability of US voting systems to hacking have been reported for years, and now the Los Angeles Times observes that, “As hackers abroad plot increasingly brazen and sophisticated assaults, the United States’ creaky polling stations and outdated voter registration technology are not up to the task of fighting them off, according to elections officials and independent experts.”
With a mix of urgency about the threats and skepticism about whether Washington or officials in the states are prepared to respond, David Salvo, a resident fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, asks: “Are we going to be prepared to prevent something more egregious from happening?”
Congressman Mark Pocan, the Wisconsin Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has an appropriate answer. “It is abundantly clear that we need to get ahead of anyone wanting to interfere with our elections,” Pocan explained in an interview following last week’s indictments and warnings. “We need better protections for our elections, including paper ballots for our voting machines.”
Pocan and several of his colleagues are doing more than just talking about what “needs” to be done. They have prepared a legislative response that would work—if congressional leaders would allow it to be debated and enacted.
While federal officials who should be all over the issue struggle to even begin the right conversations about election-integrity issues, Pocan and Congressmen Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Hank Johnson (D-GA) have been working for the better part of a year to generate support for groundbreaking legislation that gets to the heart of the matter. Their Securing America’s Future Elections (SAFE) Act would safeguard US elections from cyber threats and interference by permanently classifying the integrity and security of elections as a component of the country’s critical infrastructure.