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Protecting democracy requires action from all of us


Eighteen years ago this fall, Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee for president, was preparing for his first debate against Republican nominee George W. Bush.  As is the custom, he had chosen someone to study up and play his opponent in a series of mock debates. Tom Downey, a former congressman from Long Island and long-time friend of the nominee, had been chosen to play George W. Bush.

Downey was busy preparing for the role when a briefing book from the Bush campaign, showed up in his mail.  Studying the briefing book would certainly have helped Downey play his role better, but Downey thought better of it and instead alerted the FBI and announced this to the press. As a result, and just to be far from foul play, Downey was replaced by the political consultant and CNN commentator Paul Begala who played Gov. Bush in the debate prep.

{mosads}What is the point of this piece of ancient history?

The point is to underscore that, in these perilous times, when democracy — especially the election process — is under attack, the first line of defense is the people who work in political campaigns. That holds true even if, or especially if, the interference would help their own candidate.

As those of us who have worked on them know, campaigns are fast-moving organizations whose endpoint — election day — is final. The finality of election day and the passion most candidates and campaigns bring to their work opens up the all too human temptation to let the end justify the means.

That must be resisted at all costs.

That’s why we, along with all the members of the North Carolina delegation to the DNC, submitted a resolution to the full Democratic National Committee meeting in Chicago last month. The resolution urges candidates and campaigns to protect themselves against hacking but it goes further than that. It recognizes that it is candidates for public office and the people who support them that constitute the first line of defense in a democracy.

It does this by urging candidates and their campaigns to: “inform the public of attacks on our electoral process as soon as possible and when such disclosures would not interfere with ongoing investigations” and it asks campaigns to “be vigilant about assisting in efforts to monitor, identify and disclose such activity.”

This resolution recognizes the enormity of the problem our democracy faces in trying to counter foreign interference in elections. Obviously, law enforcement and our intelligence agencies are important to this effort. But damage from a cyber-attack can be done in a nano-second. When the Internet Research Agency is pushing out millions of messages the pace of law enforcement is simply too slow. The only actors in the system who are able to act in real time are the campaigns.

Not only are government reactions to this sort of interference too slow, they are often suspiciously half-hearted. On Wednesday, the White House announced sanctions against countries or individuals who meddle in our elections, but leaders from both parties immediately criticized the measures as woefully inadequate. The toughest sanctions in the measure are at the discretion of the president, and this is not a president known for discretion of any type. Indeed, the measure is seen by many as merely a ploy by the White House to thwart tougher bipartisan legislation on sanctions.

We now know that in the last presidential election Russian operatives flooded the internet with a long list of anti-Hillary messages: For instance, Hillary has Parkinson’s disease, Hillary is involved in al Qaeda, Hillary murdered her political opponents, Hillary used a body-double. Our personal favorite — because of its total absurdity — Hillary is running a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. Although these were nonsense, in a close election, it only takes a few hundred or a few thousand naïve believers to change the course of history.

The 2016 campaign was the first time this happened on such a scale in the United States so it’s not surprising that much of it went un-challenged. But some people were on top of it. Take Aleta Pearce, the administrator of half a dozen Bernie Sanders Facebook groups. In May 2016, she detected mischief coming from Russia or Macedonia, and she warned her readers: “Please share this with other Bernie groups so we can put an end to this spam bombing that’s filling up our pages and groups.”

The best protection against foreign interference in our democracy has to come from those who are engaged on the front lines of the political process. Democratic and Republican operatives have to suppress the all too human desire to let negative stories spew out about their opponents. We can’t stop the threat to our elections unless they do.

Donna Brazile is a Democratic activist, member of the Democratic National Committee and former chair of the Democratic National Committee and the author of Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White House. 

Elaine C. Kamarck is an academic at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Democratic National Committee. She is the author of Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again.

Tags 2018 elections Al Gore Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Donna Brazile Elections Russian interference

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