The biggest issue in 2020 will not be healthcare, immigration, or climate change, even though all three are incredibly important issues to talk about. Rather, the most preliminary issue will be the security of our elections. It does not matter how substantive a campaign any politician runs or how effective they prove their policies to be if Russia or any other foreign adversary interferes in the elections process again. In 2016, the Russian government attacked our elections using a three prong attack. They attacked our voting systems, hacked opposing candidates’ emails, and ran a precise disinformation campaign. Nothing has been done to stop Russia or any other foreign adversary for that matter from rerunning this playbook in future elections. The Senate, and more specifically Mitch McConnell, is refusing to put up any bill that would secure our elections.
The Russian military’s Main Intelligence Unit, abbreviated the GRU, attempted to hack the election systems of all fifty states, according to a recent report compiled by the Senate Intelligence Committee. While it confirmed initial reports that Russians had attempted to hack the election systems in all 50 states during the 2016 presidential election, it concluded there is no evidence that such attempts altered any votes. However, the committee did find that “Russian cyber actors were in a position to delete or change voter data” in Illinois, and highlights certain vulnerabilities in many voting machines that Russian hackers and nefarious forces of other foreign adversaries could use to potentially manipulate voter data. And it is not just Illinois. Earlier this year, in the special counsel’s report detailed how Russian hackers broke into two Florida counties’ election systems, something that was later confirmed by Governor DeSantis though he emphasized that no votes were changed. There is no one single attempt by the Russians to get involved in our elections, and there is no single election year that foreign forces will attempt to influence the American election process. Under questioning from Representative Will Hurd Robert Mueller stressed that the Russians “are doing [election interference] as we sit here and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
The attack on election systems across the country was happening simultaneously with the GRU’s targeting of Hillary Clinton’s personal email server as well as the Democratic National Committee’s cloud server, to then publicize these emails through Wikileaks. During his Congressional testimony last week, Robert Mueller agreed that the Russians made outreach to the Trump campaign, which the campaign welcomed, most famously in Don Junior’s self-published email stating “if it’s what you say it is I love it, especially later in the summer.” Furthermore, the president himself called on the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails and then praised the Wikileaks release of said emails. Even with all of this established as fact, Mueller declined to indict or pursue charges on any campaign official for welcoming Russia’s help in regards to gaining negative information on Hillary Clinton, in accordance with an opinion out of the Office of Legal Counsel stating that a sitting president cannot be indicted. As a result, Don Junior and any other member of the Republican campaign in 2020 will be welcoming Russia’s help, exemplified by the president joking with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying “Don't meddle in the election, please” as they exchanged smirks with one another.
Finally, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian company engaged in online influence operations on behalf of Russian business and political interests was spreading disinformation online. It not only undertook a social media campaign spreading false information about numerous Democratic candidates, but was also successful in organizing political rallies shortly following the election. During his testimony, Robert Mueller not only confirmed that this was true, but also that many more countries are developing capabilities to replicate what the Russians achieved in the last election. In 2020, it is not just Putin that voters have to be concerned about, but also other nefarious actors including Saudi Arabia or China.
No steps have been taken by the U.S. government to secure our elections. Trump and his staff have no reason not to work with foreign governments again to affect the outcome of the 2020 election. Mueller confirmed that President Trump and his campaign staff welcomed and encouraged election interference. However, only Paul Manafort was charged in connection to crimes involving sharing confidential polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian political consultant and person of interest in the Mueller investigation, so the IRA could accurately target swing states in their social media campaign, but the judge in the case made clear that the court had heard no evidence on the subject of whether Trump's campaign had conspired with Russia and that that was not the subject of the trial of Paul Manafort. In 2020 it seems increasingly likely that members of the Trump administration, like Jared Kushner, who have tight relationships with foreign adversaries like Saudi Arabia may seek outside help to win. Trump felt no real consequence for conspiring with Russia to defraud voters, especially since the House of Representatives is refusing to impeach him, so why wouldn’t he do it again?
In terms of securing our election systems, Senate Republicans have at every turn blocked any election security bill from even getting a vote on the Senate floor. In the 24 hours following Mueller’s testimony, Republicans in the Senate blocked two bills aimed at strengthening election security. This comes just days after Senator Hyde-Smith (R-MS) blocked a trio of election security bills from getting a vote simply because Republicans believe Congress has already responded to election security concerns. These bills are, repeat, nonpartisan. Two of the bills would have just required all campaigns to report to federal authorities any attempts by foreign governments to interfere in the election. The third aimed to secure the personal devices and accounts of senators and certain staffers from hackers. There would be no downside to over-securing our elections against foreign interference. There is no downside unless you have substantial investments in your state by Russian oligarchs.
Rusal, an aluminum company that recently invested nearly $200 million to build a new aluminum plant in Kentucky, is owned by Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally. This plant will be the largest aluminum plant constructed in the United States in decades. This project is expected to creare 1,500 construction jobs and 650 full time jobs once the plant becomes operational. And importantly, the only reason Rusal was able to invest in Kentucky is because Mitch McConnell fought incredibly hard to remove sanctions on Rusal that were put in place because Deripaska attempted to meddle in United States elections.
Senator McConnell took the floor on Thursday calling the House election security bill partisan. There is no substantial evidence that making our elections more secure would favor one party over the other if both parties currently follow the law. The only people who have to be concerned by increased scrutiny on the security of our elections are those who are benefiting from the lax laws. The bills would have replaced some paperless election systems with hand marked paper ballots as well as subjecting voting equipment vendors to increased cybersecurity standards, and requiring vendors to report cybersecurity incidents. The current companies—Election Systems & Software (ES&S) and Dominion Voting Systems—who supply the majority of the United States voting systems, that are susceptible to hacking by Russians and others, have invested in created an extensive lobbying operation. They have donated thousands of dollars to McConnell’s campaign. Several of the bills currently being stymied by McConnell would introduce for the first time substantial regulations and oversight for these companies. In addition, if the bill that encourages hand marked ballots over paperless systems passes, these companies would lose business in states that transition from paperless systems. Mitch McConnell seems to be willing to sell out our democracy as long as it benefits him and the voters that keep him in power.
Photo credit Alex Brandon, Creative Commons