Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. Today, well-informed elections officials are a prerequisite for protecting and defending our democracy, but their ability to secure our elections is being threatened.
The recent whistleblower allegations that Trump’s leadership at the Department of Homeland Security altered or suppressed intelligence to Congress regarding election threats is truly shocking. Sadly, this is consistent with Trump's recent announcement that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would cease in-person briefings to Congress which could undermine years of progress in fortifying our elections. If Congress can be treated with such contempt, what will happen to the state and local elections officials overseeing the voting process this fall?
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, it became abundantly clear that our democracy was under attack — and that those attacks would continue in frequency and sophistication. Our intelligence community continues to remind us that China, Russia, Iran, and others maintain their efforts to interfere in our elections. We need a well-informed, national response to protect the Nov. 3 presidential election that includes federal, state and local governments as partners.
Secretaries of State, registrars of voters, and boards of elections are on the front lines defending our democracy. We manage voter registration databases, secure polling places, print, mail, and receive ballots, and tally and audit results. State and local elections officials are not charged, however, with gathering intelligence or countering attacks by foreign adversaries. We rely on federal intelligence and security agencies to inform us, support us, and participate in the defense of our elections.
President Obama and former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson set a course for collaboration by designating elections as critical infrastructure. This deemed elections as part of the National Infrastructure Protection Plan and was intended to facilitate “full and frank discussions” between federal intelligence agencies and elections officials. We need accurate and timely intelligence to inform our response to threats to our elections, and federal agencies need to understand the complexity of election administration.
The critical infrastructure designation launched three years of discussions that produced valuable protocols, tools, and resources. Incident response plans were developed to prepare us to counter complex threats such as the coordinated spread of misinformation, denial-of-service attempts on our systems, and both physical and cyber disruptions of the voting process. Safeguarding elections is not as simple as putting a lock on a door or installing anti-virus software. Each defensive action requires explicit details about ever-evolving threats.
Elections officials and our federal partners have accomplished much. Through information sharing, we strengthened our self-assessments of known vulnerabilities, tapped into federal and state resources to modernize our defense posture, and improved our procurement priorities.
These efforts justified our appeal for funding which has led to modest, but helpful federal and even some state appropriations. Trump is now suppressing the flow of information which severely risks undoing the progress we’ve made.
Let’s avoid a repeat of 2016. It was not until long after the polls closed that we understood the attempted attacks on our election infrastructure and the impact of disinformation campaigns. We cannot afford to sift through the aftermath of another election wondering if we should have done more to protect our democracy. Trump must immediately reinstate in-person intelligence briefings to Congress and the Department of Homeland Security must promptly share accurate intelligence. Congress and elections officials must be informed and equipped to respond to threats in real time so that we can defend our free and fair elections.
Author Alex Padilla was sworn in as California Secretary of State on Jan. 5, 2015. He is committed to modernizing the office, increasing voter registration and participation, and strengthening voting rights.