KOLB: America Needs To Be Prepared For Election Interference In 2020

Charles Kolb Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that the possibility of Russian interference in the 2020 election is a real threat to American democracy. You can find a counterpoint here, where former Rep. Bob Barr argues that Russian interference is not a major concern in the 2020 election cycle.

Should we take seriously the risk of 2020 election fraud?

Our national intelligence agencies have confirmed that foreign actors (mostly Russians and perhaps Chinese) attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election. While there is no evidence that their efforts affected specific votes, it nonetheless makes sense for the American public, the candidates, plus local, state and national election officials to be prepared.

Here’s something we know with certainty: Communist authoritarian and totalitarian regimes routinely lie and distort reality. Vladimir Putin denied that Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine. Kim Jong-un denied that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons. Xi Jinping imprisons regime critics and threatens or harasses medical personnel who report accurately on the spreading coronavirus.

These countries and their leaders cannot be trusted. Does anyone today really believe Putin’s denial that Russia tried to influence the 2016 elections? When dealing with the former Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan famously advised “trust, but verify.” Given recent history, plus the possibility of virtually untraceable, nefarious web-based activities, we can forget the “trust” part.  It’s verify, verify, verify 24/7.

Foreign interference with our elections can take at least three forms: (1) efforts to undermine election security by tampering with voting machines, (2) efforts to influence public opinion by spreading false bots and misleading trolls and (3) efforts to hack into various databases of candidates, political parties, prominent campaign individuals and others associated with the elections process.

The goal of such interference is not just to disrupt the actual conduct of the election itself but to achieve a more insidious outcome: to undermine voters’ trust and confidence in the reliable outcome of elections. If this result were to happen, it would also undermine our fundamental faith in governance through open, democratic institutions. A citizen’s right (and obligation) to vote is the most fundamental aspect of our democratic freedoms.

Some of the voters interviewed in the recent South Carolina primary, for example, expressed concerns about the reliability of voting outcomes and whether, in fact, their votes would be counted and whether they even mattered. This type of doubt is precisely what Putin and his ilk desire to promote: he wants Americans to be apathetic and skeptical.

The interference will most likely be attempted indirectly, through third-party actors who are one or two steps removed from official government authorities. This type of arrangement affords “plausible deniability” to the official leadership.  To them, it’s all a game.

We would be naïve to think that authoritarian and totalitarian regimes don’t think and act in such a manner. They do so every day: their goal is to undermine democratic capitalism and open societies, both of which are deemed threats to their one-party political control at home and their expansionist goals abroad.

Putin’s dream is to restore the former Soviet Union. Xi Jinping wants his version of authoritarian capitalism to replace democratic capitalism, especially in the developing world.

So, to paraphrase Vladimir Lenin, “what is to be done?”

First, all elections should be backed up by paper ballots. That’s the most secure approach to ensuring that a vote cast is accurately received and recorded.

Second, bots and trolls will be employed to spread fake news and influence public opinion. Regulating the internet and social media to stop these practices is nearly impossible. The voting public can guard against such undue influences by ensuring that they get their news from multiple sources, and not just social media.

It’s also important to be exposed to messages from “the other side” and not only news sources that reinforce your own views. Finding out more information about the candidates and parties with which you might disagree can also help ensure that you end up filtering out fake news.

Before she announced her presidential campaign, Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris was a prominent supporter of the Secure Elections Act. Unfortunately, she never made much of this proposed legislation as a presidential candidate.

But President Trump can and should. It’s actually in the president’s interest to serve as a champion of safe, secure and accurate American elections. Many state elections officials have been working on these matters since 2016. The president should convene a national gathering of these officials early this spring.

After all, with more cases of the coronavirus escalating around the country right now, there’s potentially a new 2020 election theme beginning to emerge: preparedness. The country needs to be prepared for what happens between now and election day, and so does our president.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House