Election Security is Not an Idle Threat

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

Democrats are fixated on replacing Donald Trump next year. That was a given the day he took office.

There is an equally pressing need to ensure that the next presidential election is conducted in accordance with rules America sets rather than by the Russians or some other nation.

If the Mueller investigation and his testimony before Congress offered irrefutable evidence about one thing—it was about Russian intervention.

Mueller concluded that Russian interference “violated U.S. criminal law” and he indicted 26 Russian citizens and 3 Russian organizations.  

Evidence of Russian cyber-hacking came to light as early as September of 2016 but was given little attention at first.

A year later California was listed among 13 states targeted by the Russians although there was no proof that tampering succeeded.

 “It would be very difficult to — through any sort of cyber-intrusion — to alter the ballot count, simply because it is so decentralized and so vast,” former Trump-appointed Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson, commented.

US officials have said repeatedly they do not view the hacks of election-registration websites as posing a big risk.  They contend that since voting machines and tabulations systems are not connected to the Internet, it would be difficult for hackers to tamper with results.

These rosy assessments are not shared by everyone in the intelligence community.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said after the first revelations of Russian interference that hackers had scanned state election systems but not breached the system. “It is completely unacceptable that it has taken DHS over a year to inform our office of Russian scanning of our systems, despite our repeated requests for information,” said Padilla.

It has been known for some time that Russia has waged disinformation campaigns in other countries. 

In 2016 election, this included creating fake Facebook accounts that may have reached as many as 126 million Americans and disseminating leaked emails and fake documents to WikiLeaks that were the source of damaging information to the Clinton campaign. 

Whether it was the decisive factor in turning the election in Trump’s favor will be an issue for historians to ponder. Whether maximum election security is needed—and now—should not require further debate.

Yet even as both major political parties are gearing up for the most important event in 2020 there has been little talk about the almost near certainty that cyber-attacks will once again occur—and some foreign power will once again escape accountability. 

But that’s not the point: It is the duty of Congress and the president to prevent that from happening.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) has introduced legislation which was overwhelmingly adopted by the lower house with but one Republican vote.

It calls for $600 million to ensure all voting machines will have security features including a verifiable paper trail and the ability to disconnect from the internet.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner who sits on the Intelligence Committee authored another measure which calls upon campaigns to notify federal authorities of any contacts with foreign nationals attempting to “influence an election.”        

East Bay Congressman, Eric Swalwell  (D-Dublin), is co-sponsoring a similar bill. 

Other bills which are bi-partisan would establish uniform voting equipment requirements and disclosure of all foreign purchases of online campaign ads.

None are going anywhere, blocked by Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) who was apparently sufficiently security-conscious to muster through $2.5 billion of re-designated Pentagon money for the U.S.-Mexico border wall!

Are violations of our electoral system a lesser threat than unarmed immigrants seeking illegal entry?

The resignation of Dan Coats as Director of National Intelligence –a critical post–and a former devoted GOP Senator from Indiana over disagreements with his boss is not comforting.

Coats held down a very sensitive position more demanding of the highest objectivity and nonpartisanship of any in the government. 

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee conferred with the president about Coats’s departure and reportedly gave the greenlight to his successor.

His replacement, if confirmed, will be Rep. John Ratcliffe, an outspoken critic of Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the election.

Coats departure follows that of the respected Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, last December who together were considered guarantors of some stability in foreign policy—an area in which Trump has shown dismal knowledge of the complexities.

The system by which we elect our presidents can be challenged for some serious defects. The most glaring is an outdated electoral college which does not accurately reflect the distribution of the voting population of the states more suitable for 18th century America.

Eliminating or even modifying it is a big reach that is probably not accomplishable under our current political alignments.

That notwithstanding, our election process was not devised to skew the outcome in favor of a particular candidate or party with the assist of a foreign power.

This amounts to a wholesale assault on each and every citizen’s expectation of the free, unfettered exercise of a fundamental constitutional right.

The more ominous suggestion that an American president seemingly in the thrall of an enemy nation’s leader could be compromised in the exercise of his or her executive powers crosses a line that would be unprecedented in our history.

Raised to the highest level, such activity would be seen, if proven, as representing a threat to our national security. The Mueller Report did not conclude that such collusion had occurred although he came close to have us drawing  such an inference in his recent congressional testimony.

Election security is not an option. Every member of Congress regardless of party should be demanding it.

The key factors that will go into the results of the 2020 presidential election are unpredictable so many months in advance, and will undoubtedly be subject to conflicting interpretations by the winning and losing parties.

Collusion by any administration with foreign agents for the purpose of altering the final outcome of a presidential election should be eliminated as one of those factors. 

McConnell needs to bring the election legislation before him to the Senate floor for action and let the chips fall where they may. If it passes, the measure can go back to the House for reconsideration where Rep. McCarthy will have a decision to be made.

Cyber-hacking is not an idle threat.

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