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The biggest near-term question facing America’s national security establishment is clear: When and how will Russia use its considerable offensive cyber capabilities to retaliate against the United States for sweeping sanctions as well as military aid to Ukraine?
While it’s extremely difficult to predict how Russian agents may use their cyber weapons against business or even public infrastructure targets abroad, U.S. intelligence experts believe that Putin’s government will continue to engage in the kind of hacking and information warfare in which it has dabbled for years: attempting to interfere with our elections. We can only assume the threat is now greater than ever.
Congress and the Biden administration have a range of options—but only a narrow window of time—to fortify our defenses. After all, the next presidential election is just around the corner.
To be clear, there’s no evidence that Russia has successfully changed any votes, altered or deleted any voter records, or interfered with any election night reporting in the United States in recent years. However, there’s consensus in the U.S. intelligence community that officials — under Kremlin orders — have sought to interfere in our campaigns and elections. In addition to well-publicized information operations, Russian hackers actually probed elections websites in 21 U.S. states and breached some voter-registration databases.
As former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper pointed out, Russian interference and disinformation campaigns were a direct response to perceived U.S. interference in Russia’s sphere of influence, including activities in support of Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Beyond the partisan goals of any Russian interference operations, officials in both the Obama and Trump administrations believe that the objective has been, first and foremost, to undermine faith in America’s electoral institutions.
That’s why as policymakers debate options for defending against cyberattacks, one the most important and cost-effective ways to defend ourselves is to harden targets in our election system. Our nation’s leading computer science and internet security specialists and election administrators attest that America needs investments in our nation’s election infrastructure to better ensure security.
Over recent years, lawmakers from both parties have coalesced around a common agenda for election cybersecurity, sponsoring legislation to boost funding, improve security standards, ensure the use of paper ballots that provide durable records, and mainstream the use of risk-limiting audits to verify vote counts.
While many Democrats have been pushing for paper ballot requirements and election security funding for more than a decade, a growing number of Republicans — including former President Trump — have been vocal in their support for these policies. In December, the leaders of prominent conservative groups — including Americans for Tax Reform, FreedomWorks, R Street Institute, James Madison Institute, and others — sent a letter to Congress calling for more federal funding for election cybersecurity.
The crisis with Russia will hopefully prompt Congress to act.
A significant investment in election security grants for states would substantially harden election systems as targets. Given that the security of our elections is necessary for our entire society to function, this represents an extremely cost-effective way of defending our critical national security interests. Congress should also make a commitment to offer recurring financial support so that state and local election administrators can count on reliable federal funding when developing their election budgets.
The Biden administration also has options for taking immediate action. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas can require that a percentage of Homeland Security grants be used for election-related spending and request chief state election officials be involved grant applications. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency can also hire more election specialists and boost its programming to make local officials aware of opportunities to strengthen defenses.
While Russia’s interest in interfering with U.S. voting is, by this point, “old news,” we can’t lose sight of just how devastating a cyber-attack of an election would be to the civic life of our nation. It’s time that we start investing in defenses commensurate with the seriousness of the risk.
Reid Ribble is a former Republican congressman who represented Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District, and a member of the National Council on Election Integrity, a bipartisan project of Issue One.