At risk of being forgotten in the tweet storms and sworn testimony of recent weeks is the hack that started it all: Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson reminded us with his June 21 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.
While officials have assured Americans that the Russians were not able to affect the votes on Election Day, there is evidence of breached electoral systems in 21 states. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the “orchestrated cyberattacks,” said Johnson, “for the purpose of influencing our election.”
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes assured Kentuckians that there is “no evidence of any cyberattack against Kentucky’s election systems.” Grimes also noted that U.S. elections are run separately by each state, so Kentuckians should be confident in their elections.
Of course, what happens in the rest of the country affects Kentuckians. And what happened elsewhere is disturbing.
In the swing state of North Carolina, revelations of Russian hacking have prompted the Board of Elections to repoen an investigation of long lines in heavily Democratic Durham County that forced people to leave without voting for president. Voters said their names had disappeared from the rolls or were told they had already voted.
Officials blamed glitches in new electronic poll books. It has since been revealed that Russians hacked into the vendor that sold the digital product for managing voter data to Durham and 20 other counties in North Carolina. The hackers sent malware to 122 election officials nationwide. No matter what the investigation concludes, the Russians succeeded just by sowing doubt.
In Texas, in Democratic Dallas County, Russian hackers tried and failed to access voter rolls. A local official said if the hackers had succeeded in manipulating or deleting the data base, there could have been chaos on Election Day.
We can’t brush off this threat to orderly elections or respond with yet another partisan fight. This is an American fight.
(Those tempted to think in partisan terms should remember that hackers could mess with Republican strongholds in the future.)
Officials say Russia won’t let up on hacking our elections and the results could be far worse than leaked emails or last year’s breaches. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, rightfully said that if interference like this persists “then we really do cease being the country that we are.”
Local and state election officials are ill equipped to foil sophisticated hackers backed by a foreign government, as McClatchy’s Washington bureau reported. State and local officials will need the federal government’s guidance and support to combat cyber sabotage.
But President Donald Trump continues to downplay Russia’s actions, apparently because he thinks it diminishes his victory. The president must overcome his ego to fulfill his constitutional oath. The Trump administration’s continued complacency and failure to punish Russia in any meaningful way will leave our elections vulnerable to disruption from afar.
At stake is nothing less than our freedom.
Freedom House, a nonprofit that promotes democracy and human rights, uses a number of measures to determine whether a country is free, not free or somewhere in the middle. One measure is free and fair elections, unaffected by, among other things, foreign powers. This year, the United States dropped one point on a 100-point scale — from 90 to 89 — with Russia’s meddling cited as a “key development.”
Sure, a one-point decrease isn’t a huge deal. And maybe you can convince yourself that Russia’s interference in the election wasn’t a huge deal either. But we cannot allow this to start a trend in which the world’s beacon of democracy loses what makes it democratic.
The focus on Trump’s firing of James Comey as FBI director can’t be allowed to eclipse the bigger concern. Republicans and Democrats alike should care more about protecting our foundational right of free and fair elections than scoring points in the latest political smackdown.
This is not left vs. right. This is the United States of America vs. those who would threaten our freedom. This is, as Freedom House describes it, “the world’s oldest democracy” vs. an authoritarian regime working to diminish democracy itself.