Report on new threats targeting our elections should serve as a wake-up call to public, policymakers

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Yesterday, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released an important report titled, “Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy.” The report warns of the new foreign threats that are targeting our election infrastructure and democratic institutions and highlights the flaws in our current efforts to secure both. The “election sector is not following best security practices with regard to cybersecurity,” the report says, and emphasizes that issues surrounding the integrity of our election infrastructure must be addressed by Congress, the president, and the American public.

In recent years, the employment of new digital voting tools and the deployment of new social media technologies have presented new risks to our election infrastructure and the very fabric of our democracy. While the threats were not new, they became glaringly apparent to all of us in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential elections. Since then, we have written to the chairman of the Science Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), on three separate occasions, in January, March, and April 2018, requesting that our committee hold hearings on the security of our election infrastructure and the tools used by our adversaries to covertly influence the American public in order to sway the results of our democratic elections. However, it has become clear that we have to worry not just about the integrity and resiliency of our election infrastructure but the influence of our adversaries on our democratic discourse.

As an institution, the U.S. Congress has a responsibility to help inform the public of these risks, rein in these threats, and develop policies that will help safeguard our most vital democratic processes and institutions. The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, in particular, has oversight and legislative authority for cybersecurity standards for voting technologies, which are established by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The Science Committee exercised this crucial responsibility by including a requirement to establish standards for voting machines in the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). In recent years, however, we have shirked our responsibility. The Science Committee should move immediately to consider and address the adequacy of voting machine standards, other sources of security gaps in our election infrastructure, and social engineering tools that are being exploited by the enemies of our democracy to derail and degrade our democratic institutions.

Addressing these issues is not about defending a specific political party, but about ensuring that every citizen can be confident that his or her vote is counted as intended, and that all political candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, have a fair shot at making their case to the American public. We now know that the Russian attack on our election infrastructure in 2016 targeted the Democratic candidate for president. However, last month, Microsoft detected efforts by a Russian military intelligence unit to target conservative groups, including the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute. In addition, Google, Facebook, and Twitter indicated they acted against an Iranian propaganda operation targeting Americans. Our efforts to defend our democracy should be bipartisan and focused on defending our democratic institutions, not individual candidates or specific political parties. Any attack against any legitimate political party should be viewed by all Americans with equal concern and disdain.

Cybersecurity will continue to be a challenge. Threats against our democracy will remain. Fake news and false narratives that feed on fear and are perpetrated by those who want to undermine our diverse and vibrant democracy will continue to pollute our interconnected digital world. One of the best defenses will be educating the public to these threats and helping illuminate the actions of bad actors when they are discovered. The NASEM reports spells out many additional policy steps we should start considering in Congress without delay. Defending our democracy from those that seek to undermine it is not a partisan issue, it is a patriotic one. The NASEM report should be a wake-up call to the public and policymakers alike that we must work together to ensure the pillars of our democratic institutions are sturdy, resilient, and safe from future threats. As the report concluded: “If the challenges currently facing our election systems are ignored, we risk an erosion of confidence in our election system and in the integrity of our election processes.”

Johnson is ranking member on the House Science Committee and Beyer is ranking member on the Oversight Subcommittee.

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