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Congress must act to restore the integrity of American elections

Congress must act to restore the integrity of American elections
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Before the 2017 German election, Angela Merkel issued a loud call to build an election firewall. Everyone listened. By contrast, Eric Rosenbach, former head of cybersecurity for the Defense Department, told the Financial Times, “[States] are just not equipped to be fighting the pointy end of the spear of the Russian [intelligence agency].” He got that right.

Are people listening? To some extent, they cannot hear through the constant distractions. It’s time to issue a loud call to protect our upcoming midterm elections from foreign interference. Where are we now?

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In April, 38 states took part in an election “cybersecurity bootcamp” conceived and directed by Rosenbach. A few weeks later on May 4, the White House issued a readout of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report Trump to nominate former Monsanto exec to top Interior position White House aides hadn’t heard of Trump's new tax cut: report MORE’s meeting on election security: “The president received an update about current federal election security-related efforts” including “best practices like using paper ballots, issuing security clearances, and conducting security assessments.”

However, the meeting was absent a clarion call to action. Instead, it seems that President Trump is more interested in assembling a team of political snipers to take aim at the ongoing investigation by special prosecutor Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE and the Justice Department than genuinely focusing on strengthening the security of our elections.

Sadly it’s almost too late to embrace legislation introduced on May 7 by House Armed Services Chairman, Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryLawmakers press Trump to keep Mattis The Hill’s 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — Trump knocks NY Times tax story as 'hit piece' | FBI faces pressure over Kavanaugh | Collins calls Trump remarks on Ford 'plan wrong' Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump signs bill funding Pentagon, averting shutdown | F-35 price drops below M | Iran threatens US bases MORE (R-Texas), who introduced the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that would create a federally coordinated effort against “malign foreign influence,” a term broadly defined in the bill. However, that effort won’t come in time for the 2018 election. If the bill were to pass this summer, President Trump would have nine months, well past November, to submit to Congress a whole government strategy to counteract “malign foreign influence.”

In the meantime, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on election hacking. It found, ominously, that “in a small number of states, [Russian-affiliated] cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data.” The committee found “ample evidence to conclude that the Russian government was developing capabilities to undermine confidence in our election infrastructure, including voter processes.” Just last week, the committee concluded the Russians intervened in the 2016 election to help President Trump’s campaign.

The Mueller investigation is now one year old. We have been caught up with trying to locate or find “collusion” during the last presidential election, so much so that we missed informing the public that Russia’s 2016 election cyber sabotage was only a small part of a massive effort to undermine the foundations of all Western democracies.

In this, Vladimir Putin continues to get a lot of assistance from us. We have paved the road to the public’s diminished faith in Congress and created doubts about the fairness of the media. We undermine the integrity of our electoral process with extreme partisanship and dark money floating through a sewer system layered with wealthy donors or self-funded candidates who don’t have to listen to us.

It’s time that Congress (yes, I am referring to the majority) stop ignoring the real threat posed by “malign foreign actors” who are bent on shattering our democracy by attacking all of its foundations. Germany provided a sterling example. Germans rallied to Merkel’s strong and clear call to initiate immediate countermeasures. The German Education Ministry backed a cybersecurity school where “politicians and IT officials are taught to spot and react to hacking.” Working with state and local government officials, our Homeland Security Department must do.

Germany’s armed forces deployed 12,000 soldiers and 1,500 civilians — not to polling places — but to critical infrastructure that might be attacked on election day, including schools, hospitals, utility companies, polling stations, power plants, and military cyber networks. The Pentagon should work with other federal agencies to get this done in the United States. Merkel’s political party advocated a law that would allow the government to “hack back to destroy attacking servers.” Germany’s election watchdog agency was given 180 workers “from lawyers to coders” to guard the voting process. Hell, at the Democratic National Committee, we formed our own “hacker house” to guard and strengthen our cyberspace.

So far, except for Rosenbach’s private sector cybersecurity bootcamp, U.S. government action appears to be mostly hearings, investigations, and discussions without urgency to apply their lessons. We’re short on action. States jealously guard their right to conduct elections. I get that they don’t want the federal government posting troops at the polls, or mucking around in their voter rolls, or conducting their election business any more than they’d welcome Russia doing the same.

For this reason, some of the measures that Germany undertook might not work here. That doesn’t mean that Congress and the federal government should do nothing. There are steps we can take to protect our democracy now. Our first priority should be for the Homeland Security Department to work with states so that they have the knowledge, funding, and resources to upgrade their systems prior to election day.

That means “getting on the stick” — foregoing a summer vacation if need be — until we find every vulnerability and a way to safeguard each individual state system, without a permanent federal presence or control in their election process. This is not about a witch hunt, hoax, or more partisan power grabs. This might be our only chance to preserve the integrity of our future elections in the United States.

Donna Brazile served as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee from 2016 to 2017. Follow her on Twitter @DonnaBrazile.