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When will Congress put politics aside and secure our elections?

When will Congress put politics aside and secure our elections?
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All everyone seems to be talking about is the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russia meddling. Yet, one aspect of this story that seems to have profound implications has gotten relatively little attention. This is the interference with the actual administration of U.S. elections.

It is now well established that the Russian government targeted state election systems in 2016. Even the White House has, albeit begrudgingly, acknowledged this fact. Recent reports have revealed that Russian interference operations are ongoing, including new attempts to hack the 2018 election. Yet, election security issues have received relatively little public attention. Indeed, Senate Republicans just shot down additional funding for election security in advance of midterms.

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Complicating this problem is the fact that election administration in America is primarily a matter of state control. As a result, the vast burden of protecting U.S. elections has mostly fallen to the states. Following the revelations of the 2016 election hacking, some state leaders have called for more investment to defend their elections, and a few state legislatures have taken proactive steps to secure their elections.

So everything is under control right? Not so fast. I gathered data on state election budgets from fiscal 2015 to fiscal 2019 with the goal of determining whether states have invested in election defense based on the 2016 experience. In short, states varied widely. Some states increased spending on elections, often explicitly referring to concerns about election hacking. Other states seemed to just keep up with inflation. Distressingly, more than a third of states for which I had data decreased spending after the revelations of 2016 election hacking.

I also looked at budget requests made by state governors to their legislatures. Again, states varied widely, with requests ranging from large increases to meaningful decreases. Notably, among the requests for the largest increases in spending were Ohio, California and New York, which are home to Republican and Democratic governors who have been strong critics of the Trump administration and who are potential candidates for their respective party nominations for president in 2020.

The data show that state election defense has not boomed as some of us might have hoped. The data also showed that the political importance of the state or the closeness of its elections did not predict which states spent more. This means the next election may be in jeopardy. The results support two bigger picture ideas that should be obvious.

First, by relying on states to handle elections, the United States is practically guaranteeing that there will be wide variation in the strength of election defenses. But unlike for some purely local issues, the vulnerability of any state can have consequences for all of us. The choice of butterfly ballots in Florida in 2000, for example, may have determined who was elected president of the United States. State underinvestment in election security for 2018 or 2020 might turn those elections too.

Second, the state by state variation in election spending may not be random. Devolving election security to the states during a time of polarization is practically guaranteeing that election defense will become a partisan issue. This is especially true during a time when the claim of foreign interference itself has been polarized by lawmakers today.

This politicization is worrisome because, again, vulnerabilities in any state can have consequences for the entire nation. While election interference might benefit one party or the other in the short term, in the long term it will harm all of us by degrading our democratic institutions and our confidence in them. We have a shared national interest in defending all of our elections, not just those in blue or red states.

After months of unheeded calls for support, Congress has appropriated more federal funding for state election security grants. Even if these resources are made available in time for midterms, states have wide discretion on how to use these funds or whether to use them at all. This does not inspire confidence that U.S. elections will be secure soon.

Election security demands federal leadership. When the Senate Select Intelligence Committee issued its list of recommendations to respond to Russian election meddling, it began with reinforcing the primacy of states in running elections. I disagree. The first priority should be securing elections so that everyone has the opportunity to vote.

If that entails the federal government taking a larger role in election administration, so be it. Even the most ardent federalist acknowledges that Washington has an important role in national defense. It turns out that national defense today includes defending our ballot boxes.

Zachary Clopton is a professor at Cornell Law School. He writes about civil litigation, national security, international affairs, and government relations.