Is the 2018 election safe from meddling?

Preident Donald Trump at a July 5 rally for Republican candidates in Montana during which Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin “fine.”
Preident Donald Trump at a July 5 rally for Republican candidates in Montana during which Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin “fine.” Jim Urquhart

Even our president’s greatest fans have to admit, in light of a new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, that the aim of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was to help Donald Trump.

The bipartisan report, released July 3, may ease some doubts that the Republican-controlled Senate will ever be willing to serve as a check on the president, who still disputes that Russia tried to help him win office. Ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia are under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

As recently as June 28, President Trump tweeted that “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” — as if Vladimir Putin is more trustworthy than an investigation led by Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina. (No doubt Trump will have more useful information if he gets his wish to meet privately with Putin later this month. )

The midterm election – just four months away – could spell trouble for Trump if Democrats take Congress. Whether this election will be more secure from hostile interference is hard to say.

State election officials, including Kentucky’s, are alert to cyber-threats, while the Trump administration is more focused on protecting us from refugee toddlers.

In March, Congress approved $380 million for states to beef up election security — the first appropriation since 2010 from money authorized by the Help America Vote Act, enacted in 2002 after the Florida balloting debacle of 2000. This was not an urgent or impressive congressional response to Russia’s attempts to hack into 21 states’ voter files or election sites in 2016, but better than nothing. (Hackers would have an extremely hard time getting into voting machines, but by messing with voter registration records, could create chaos at the polls.)

Kentucky will receive $5.7 million in exchange for putting up $288,671 for a total of about $6.1 million. The state board of elections, which earlier this year mandated that new voting machines bought in Kentucky provide voter-verified paper trails, will decide how to deploy the federal grant.

How to counter Russian-generated propaganda, spread via social media, is more complicated than hardening election technology. The U.S. has imposed some sanctions on Russia in response to the 2016 interference, but Trump’s rhetoric gives Putin little to fear if his trolls keep spreading disinformation.

Intelligence agencies reported in January 2017 that Russia tried to “infiltrate state election infrastructure” and “manipulate social media to sow discord.” Since then, the Senate Intelligence Committee said, even more evidence of Russian dirty tricks has come to light. The committee also confirmed that what Russia did in 2016 was “a significant escalation” and that Putin approved the “influence campaign.”

Earlier the committee recommended that the Department of Homeland Security create “clear channels of communication” to alert state officials about possible cyber threats and also provide them with security clearance so they can receive classified information. Let’s hope Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen can communicate election threats more clearly than she has communicated the administration’s immigrant detention policies.

Candidates could foil hostile interference by refusing to use illegally obtained material. Voters should ask those seeking office if they’ll take that anti-hacking pledge.