Four years ago, the United States Government failed to respond forcefully to Russian attempts to sow discord in and influence our elections. The previous administration’s paralysis left Americans blindsided by Russia’s meddling.
Let’s be clear: Moscow’s overriding goal was and remains to undermine our democracy and cast doubt on the legitimacy of our elections and drive deep societal divisions in America. Unfortunately, they appear to have been successful, as far too many Americans still question the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
As we look forward to November of this year, various adversaries are now seeking to sow discord, and we must be better prepared to defend ourselves.
We know with certainty that Russia, China, and other nations are actively exploiting our domestic political divisions and looking for opportunities to undermine confidence in our elections. Given our nation’s current challenges — a perfect storm of a global pandemic, public lockdowns, subsequent economic turmoil, and social unrest — these efforts could be like throwing a match on an oil slick.
But it gets worse.
Local election officials in critical swing states like Pennsylvania, which saw a 17-fold increase in mail-in ballots for its June primary, are warning that, absent changes, “there is no way anybody can responsibly call the presidential race in November.”
We cannot escape the pandemic-induced reality of increased mail-in voting, and the logistical challenges associated with it will be difficult for some states to resolve in the next couple of months. This will almost certainly lead to confusion, uncertainty, and perhaps chaos on election night.
In fact, we’d be wise to expect it.
Imagine election night results showing one candidate on top in a critical swing state, but the lead is fewer than 100,000 votes, and the state has one million mail-in ballots yet to be counted. Now imagine that potentially occurring across the country. After all, in 15 states, officials cannot even begin counting mail-in ballots until Election Day, a process that could take days or weeks. States may also be dealing with an influx of provisional ballots, which are frequently flash points in tightly contested elections.
Americans would be on edge even under the best of circumstances, but these are not the best of circumstances.
Beijing and other hostile foreign actors would throw their full weight behind a misinformation campaign, complete with falsified evidence, asserting that the results are rife with fraud and the election is in the process of being “stolen.” They would use unassuming, but fake social media accounts to spread and magnify allegations that some mail-in ballots are being removed from the post office and destroyed, while others are falsified.
By the time the election officials would be ready to announce the results, there would already be widespread doubt cast on the election’s legitimacy.
It is a nightmare scenario for our nation, which was founded on a revolutionary promise of peaceful transitions of civilian leadership.
But knowing is half the battle. An informed electorate, responsible leadership from both parties, and a news media dedicated to truth and country instead of ratings are critical to what lies ahead. To emphasize the point: a free, independent press is vital to our democracy, but a media that prioritizes sensationalism and inflammatory content in a race for ratings, clicks, and retweets would be an unwitting partner as foreign adversaries attempt to push disinformation and undermine Americans’ confidence in our electoral system. We’ve seen it before.
There are also steps we can take as elected officials.
First, we must clearly signal to foreign adversaries that meddling in our elections will be met with a commensurately harsh response. Congress should immediately pass and President Trump should sign my bipartisan Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act.
Second, we should give states the flexibility to provide local election officials additional time to count each and every vote by moving the federal safe harbor deadline for states from December 8 to January 1, an idea first proposed by Kevin Johnson and Yuval Levin. I introduced a bill to do exactly that, and urge my colleagues to join me in giving states more time to collect, verify, and count votes without fear of having the results challenged in Congress.
Third, the federal government should continue to provide funding and expertise to states, especially those that do not have established or efficient mail-in ballot systems in place. Funding to support enhanced health and safety measures may also be necessary.
Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that there are also subversive elements within our own country. The chaos of a contested election creates cover for everyone from radical anarchists like Antifa to white ethno-nationalists seeking to foment a second civil war. We must give them no quarter, as they look to undermine our country — albeit for different reasons — just like regimes based in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran.
Every single American has a role to play in preserving the integrity of our elections and securing yet another peaceful transition of power. Your country needs you. Are you prepared to rise to the occasion?