Senators Probe Election Security Preparedness

Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing sought to answer the question: “How well are we prepared if foreign agents attempt to interfere in our upcoming elections?” Judging by the expert testimony, the answer is “not very.”

Trump Administration officials tried to reassure senators on Tuesday that America’s national security and law enforcement agencies are prepared to stop Russian cyber-vandals from meddling in this fall’s midterm elections.

But Deputy Assistant Attorney General Adam Hickey and Matthew Masterson, an official at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), got a skeptical reception from Democratic senators and academic election analysts. They are worried that the Russians are primed to repeat and expand on their 2016 effort to disrupt the election, spread misinformation, and penetrate the nation’s electoral machinery.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, was skeptical of claims that federal agencies have “sufficient tools” to tackle election interference. He cited weak enforcement of existing regulations and the sheer scope of the threat to our elections as evidence that this issue is not being adequately addressed.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, cited the ongoing security threats posed by foreign actors who use shell corporations to skirt lobbying and campaign finance laws. Hickey wouldn’t take a stand on current legislative efforts to tighten restrictions on shell corporations.

The hearing also included academic and legal experts concerned with the current level of preparedness for a potential attack. Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University, stressed that the Kremlin’s top priority is undermining the democratic system, not selecting the winning candidates. He warned that limiting the scope of election security efforts to poll-hacking and vote-tampering will still leave Americans vulnerable to foreign disinformation, manufactured polarization, and voter suppression efforts.

Nina Jankowicz, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center, provided some novel ideas for addressing foreign threats to democracy. She advocated for building a list of trusted advertisers that people can refer to if they see a questionable political ad, modeled on the Better Business Bureau’s accreditation program. She also called for a greater investment in civic education and media literacy, potentially by creating a partnership between the national security establishment and the Department of Education.

Masterson, the DHS representative, identified critical areas where security improvements are needed, including increased manpower at the state and local levels. He emphasized improving cybersecurity expertise among local elections officials and encouraging state adoption of election systems that create a paper record of every vote so that auditors can verify the reported results.

Despite the administration’s reassurances regarding our preparedness, it appears that much important work remains undone.

Ryan Pierannunzi and Molly Robertson are Common Cause interns.