At first, “Cozy-Bear,” “Fancy-Bear” and “Gucifer 2.0” may sound like characters out of a science fiction thriller. But on June 15, 2016, we learned that these were the names associated with Russian groups who hacked into campaign committee computer networks. The following week, Wikileaks published 20,000 emails from the hack, which exposed the cybersecurity vulnerabilities of our democratic institutions for all Americans to witness.
It has now been a full year since the intelligence community released its declassified report on the cyber breach, confirming both that Russia executed the attacks and that Russian hackers will be back to exploit vulnerabilities in future elections. But after one year, after more than 800 votes in the House and the Senate, and nearly 365 days into the Trump administration, federal lawmakers have yet to pass a single bill to protect our elections from another attack.
With campaigns already gearing up for the 2018 elections, it’s open season on our democracy.
To be clear, no evidence suggests that Russian cyberattacks compromised any election equipment, or that they were able to tamper with voting ballots. But we know that they “cased the joint,” and there is a consensus among the intelligence community and cybersecurity experts that Russia will strike again in future elections. Defending our democracy against another attack will require action now. Not next month, not next year, but starting today.
Unfortunately, this sense of urgency is not shared by everyone. We have been disappointed in the lack of leadership by the White House on this important issue. Instead of unifying the country following Russia’s cyberattacks, this administration established a now-defunct sham election commission in order to support President Trump’s foregone and unfounded conclusion of voter fraud.
The good news is that the decentralized nature of our election system makes it difficult for hackers to infiltrate our system using only one entry point. But difficult does not mean impossible. If a malicious actor is strategic enough, and focuses on unsecured voting equipment in a few counties in key battleground states, this intruder could successfully manipulate the outcome of an election. Given the recent revelations on how Russia exploited social media platforms to strategically disseminate divisive and narrowly tailored ads in key states, we now have proof that our adversaries have studied our vulnerabilities and intend to find ways to exploit them.
The bad news is that a decentralized election system is more difficult to update and secure in a comprehensive manner, and any infrastructure that is improperly secured could easily become the potential doorway to sabotage and data breaches.
But in some corners of Washington, officials and lawmakers are working quietly to address the issue of cybersecurity in our elections. Last year, former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson designated election equipment as critical infrastructure. Former DHS Secretary John Kelly upheld this decision, underlining the importance of protecting this nation’s voting systems. This designation ensures that voting equipment receives the same vigilant protection as other national security systems. More importantly, it gives election officials direct access to DHS resources and support services to be better equipped to deter cyberattacks.
And here in Congress, we’ve joined forces to introduce the SHIELD Act, a critical piece of legislation that would establish an Election Security Board of Advisors. As members of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus, we are leading the fight for unfettered access to the ballot box by all eligible citizens. This includes equal access to up-to-date and certified voting systems that protect the sanctity of each person’s determined vote and increases their confidence in the democratic process.
Additionally, we believe that Congress plays a vital role in partnering with states to protect this critical infrastructure. Much of the election equipment used by states are nearing the end of their shelf lives and are sometimes incompatible with new software updates. By making voluntary technological grants to states an annual appropriations line item, Congress could assist states in being able to keep pace with the rapid technological developments.
We therefore call upon all those who work to protect our democracy to remain persistent in safeguarding our election infrastructure from cyberattacks. Every vulnerability must be strengthened and every precinct equipped with the means to protect against cyberattacks. We urge our colleagues to support and pass legislative measures that adequately protect this critical infrastructure for all communities. We also strongly urge the administration to refocus its efforts toward protecting against malicious actors, foreign and domestic, rather than advancing a false narrative of voter fraud aimed at disenfranchising millions of voters across the country.
• Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, New York Democrat, represents New York’s 9th District. She sits on the Energy and Commerce, Small Business, and Ethic Committees. Rep. Clarke is the Member-at-Large of the Congressional Black Caucus, Co-Chair of the Caucus on Black Women and Girls, and the Co-Chair of the Multicultural Media Caucus. She is also a member of the newly formed Voting Rights Caucus. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, Alabama Democrat, is serving her fourth term representing Alabama’s 7th District. She sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and on the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Sewell is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and is Vice Chair of the New Democrat Coalition. She is also Co-Chair of the newly formed Voting Rights Caucus.
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