During his congressional testimony, former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III warned that not only had Russia interfered with the American election process in 2016, but “they’re doing it as we sit here.” That chilling moment should have focused the attention of all Americans, but unfortunately, the legislators in the hearing room barely paused to register it.
With little more than a year until the next presidential election, we are learning that the integrity of this system is more at risk than many of us had supposed.
The questions of whether President Trump encouraged Russian interference in the 2016 campaign or obstructed an investigation into election security are certainly relevant—and members of Congress have a duty to pursue these questions, no matter how much the president levels blind attacks against them—but restoring public trust in the way we elect our political leaders is the more immediate task. With little more than a year until the next presidential election, we are learning that the integrity of this system is more at risk than many of us had supposed. (The Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded that election systems in all 50 states were targeted by Russia in 2016 and that other nations also are developing the capacity to change electronic election results.) We remain in the dark about precisely what Mr. Mueller was referring to in his warning about “doing it as we sit here” and can only hope that members of Congress have shown more curiosity about the specifics in closed-door briefings than appeared on C-Span.
Whatever the specifics of Russian interference, whether it is spreading disinformation or hacking voting systems, it is clear that our political leadership needs to act with a speed and unity that it has rarely shown in recent years. In these pages we have often voiced disappointment over the inability of the executive and legislative branches to come to bipartisan agreements on immigration reform, tax reform, health care and climate change, but the integrity of our elections is not an area where partisan differences should be an obstacle.
The integrity of our elections is not an area where partisan differences should be an obstacle.
The House of Representatives has passed election-security legislation that includes $600 million for new voting equipment, along with national requirements that voting machines stay disconnected from the internet and produce paper records, but the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has refused to allow votes on the proposals authored by Democrats and has not proposed alternative measures of his own. Mr. McConnell reportedly objects to being painted as someone unconcerned with election security, arguing that it has always been the responsibility of the states to administer elections. But the determination of who will occupy the White House and which party will control Congress is not a purely local concern, and it is reasonable for all U.S. citizens to be concerned about the security of every vote that will help make that determination.
The states themselves do not have to wait for Congress to act. Some are already moving on their own to better secure elections. Georgia, for example, recently mandated that touch-screen voting machines also produce verifiable paper ballots. Even better, a bipartisan national commission on election security or a public summit of all the secretaries of state would be steps toward restoring confidence in our electoral system.
In demanding action, we risk deepening doubts over the results of the next presidential election should security not be improved or guaranteed by then. That is a risk we have to take. It is an act of faith that our republic is still capable of responding effectively to an existential threat to our democratic processes.