We need to keep both Russia and Washington out of state elections

We need to keep both Russia and Washington out of state elections
© Greg Nash

Decentralization of our elections is in our Constitution to protect individual liberty. This was true in 1787 and remains true today, even if some in Washington are hungry to increase federal power over state elections. We know some facts about the 2016 election. Not a single vote was changed by a foreign government. Not a single state election administration system was manipulated or altered. In other words, our decentralized American election system worked.

When the Founders designed the election system for our country, they prevented any one central authority from having power over the outcome. They were concerned about domestic threats to the sanctity of the process. State control over elections free from federal meddling, and having localities within those states conduct the elections, makes it difficult to manipulate outcomes or usurp authority.

This decentralization of power over elections also protects the integrity of the system from foreign threats. There are more than 3,000 different election offices in the United States. Elections are run by county officials with guidance from state officials. Local officials manage the final voter rolls, check in voters, tally the votes in public view, and certify results to state officials. It is harder for the Russians to hack hundreds of decentralized systems than it is to hack a single central system.

Some want to change our presumption of local control. As usual in Washington, money is sweetening the pot. Federal dollars devoted to “critical infrastructure” have produced the familiar buzz of contractors swarming to a honey pot of cash. Bureaucrats at the Department of Homeland Security, eager to increase their own job security, have risen to the occasion in classic Washington style, seeking to “fix” a problem that does not exist. Remember that it was the federal government that could not prevent the massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management. Washington should get its own house in order first.

Even some misguided Republicans have joined the frenzy to impose “one size fits all” mandates over state elections. They should remember two things. First, expanding federal authority over state elections is an initiative from the Obama era, cooked up by former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and sustained in the Trump administration through bureaucratic inertia. Second, the special interests who have toiled in the courtrooms trying to expand federal power have a new home in the “critical infrastructure” effort. Expanding the authority of Washington over elections has been a top priority of those who never really liked the decisions made in 1787 about state control over elections.

The arrest of alleged Russian agent Maria Butina will add momentum to the cause of centralization. Yet, her story sounds more like an overzealous college Republican than it does an effective foreign agent. She is like the typical youngster seeking out head tables at Washington banquets, trolling the concourse at conferences, and trying to score meetings.

The real foreign influence in American elections is foreigners getting on the rolls and voting. Are you skeptical? Start with Mario Orellana. She was indicted on five counts in federal court in Texas last month for false representation of citizenship and voter fraud. It was the first time in more than nine years that the Department of Justice has enforced laws against foreigners voting in American elections. Never heard of Orellana? That is understandable. A quick online search reveals scant media coverage of her indictment. The real foreign influence in our elections is evidently less newsworthy than a Russian spy at the NRA convention.

Orellana is certainly not the only alien voter. Records from Allegheny County in Pennsylvania reveal that scores of noncitizens in Pittsburgh were systematically being registered to vote. More than a quarter who registered then voted. One alien in Pittsburgh, “Angelo,” registered in 1998 and cast ballots nearly every year from 2001 to 2014. Then there was “Conroy” who marked “yes” that he was a citizen, voted in 2004, and later wrote officials that he did not know he had to be a citizen to vote.

It is reasonable to assume there are many more still on the rolls who have not written election officials essentially admitting they were committing a crime. The real foreign influence on American elections is a broken Motor Voter system. Not only does the current registration system encourage foreign participation, it prevents states from implementing safeguards. After the United States Election Administration approved changes to the federal voter registration form for Georgia, Kansas and Alabama to fix the problem, interest groups sued the federal agency to stop it.

It would not be hard to fix the real vulnerabilities to foreign influence in our elections. Citizenship verification protocols and a Motor Voter law that does not invite fraud are a start. Giving the Department of Homeland Security more money and power over states is not the answer.

J. Christian Adams is president and general counsel for the Public Interest Legal Foundation and a former lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice. He also served on the Presidential Advisory Commission for Election Integrity.