Perhaps the most important takeaway from special counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation, which came to a close this past weekend, is that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election.
Despite this, neither the Trump administration nor Senate Republicans, who have wielded control since 2016, appear to have a plan to prevent more of the same in 2020.
According to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings, delivered to Congress on Sunday, the investigation concluded there were “two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.”
Those efforts included attempts by Russia’s Internet Research Agency to “conduct disinformation and social media operations” to “sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election,” and “hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the elections.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed Monday that the Trump administration had been actively engaged in trying to keep future elections safe.
“Not too long ago, we had a number of senior administration officials come to the briefing room and walk through, in detail, how we’re taking a ‘whole of government’ approach,” she said. “[The Defense Department, Homeland Security, Justice Department, and the intelligence community are] working to make sure what happened in 2016 doesn’t continue to happen, and we’re looking and working with all of the state and local officials and making sure that we do everything we can to try to prevent this.”
It’s unclear how active the White House has been in leading this effort. President Donald Trump himself has been hesitant to acknowledge Russia interfered in the 2016 election, resisting the conclusions of own intelligence officials and saying he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told Trump his country was not behind the election meddling.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who blocked a bipartisan effort to warn the public about ongoing Russian meddling in 2016, acknowledged in remarks on Monday that Russia was the guilty party. “I look forward, as well, to the continuing parallel work of our Senate colleagues on the Select Committee on Intelligence to study the threats that foreign interference pose to our institutions,” he said.
McConnell’s office did not respond to inquiries about whether Republicans would put forward a plan to prevent future meddling.
ThinkProgress also reached out to the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as other relevant committees, to ask about any potential plans to secure future elections. Most did not respond.
A spokesperson for Intelligence Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) pointed to a May 2018 unclassified committee report that included recommendations but no legislation.
Elections in the United States are governed by some federal laws, but are mostly the purview of state and local governments. As a result, elections are carried out and administered in hundreds of different ways.
After the 2000 presidential election exposed problems with some of the ballots and machines in Florida, Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). That law provided billions of dollars to help states modernize voting equipment and established a federal agency to assist states and localities.
Last year, Congress included $380 million in its budget deal for new HAVA money to help states secure their elections. Ben Hovland, vice chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, told ThinkProgress that the money had been invaluable in helping upgrade voter machines and cybersecurity. But in order to truly safeguard future elections, more was needed.
“We’ve seen some people replace voting machines, cyber security programs, cyber navigating programs,” Hovland said. “[But] we’re hearing a lot of states would like to do more — $380 million was enough to do some, but not all. So I think there’s room for additional funding.”
Illinois, whose statewide voter registration lists were actually breached in 2016 by the Russian hacking, used the bulk of the more than $13 million it received from that pool to shore up its cybersecurity efforts. The Illinois Cyber Navigator Program works to ensure that all 108 local election authorities in the state have adequate cybersecurity procedures and resources, especially the smaller communities that cannot afford massive IT staffs.
“It was adequate to help get things moving for 2020,” Matt Dietrich, spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Elections, told ThinkProgress. But to really fix things, he explained, they’ll need to replace the voting equipment statewide again.
“Now the equipment is getting old, breaking down… the newest equipment has a lot of technical enhancements that weren’t around in 2004,” he said. “It’s gonna cost $175 million to replace them, we estimate. Is that gonna be forthcoming? We just don’t know.”
There’s also the question of where 2020 election interference might come from. During the 2016 election, the bulk of the misinformation came from Russia, although there were some outlier cases like the Macedonian teenagers who created fake news for cash. But Russia’s success did not go unnoticed by other nations.
On Tuesday, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told MSNBC that he “fully expect[ed] the Chinese to become involved [in future election meddling], if they haven’t already.” Facebook also announced the same day that it had removed a series of accounts from Russia, Iran, Macedonia, and Kosovo for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
When asked how to remedy any future election issues, Kennedy pointed to the $380 million in HAVA funding from last year and suggested securing elections should be left up to the states.
Regardless of where threats originate, experts who spoke to ThinkProgress agreed that electoral interference was still a major problem, partly because of social media inaction, but also because of the lack of a unified U.S. response.
“We do need to give [social media companies] more guidance because they’re not doing a very good job of enforcing their own guidelines,” Nina Jankowicz, an expert on Russia and electoral security at the Wilson Center, told ThinkProgress. “In Ukraine, Facebook didn’t put in ad restrictions until March 18 — less than two weeks before an election. We’ve seen them over and over again not do their due diligence. This is a huge problem, but they’re a multi-billion dollar company and need to try harder.”
While the nature of the threat is constantly evolving, Jankowicz noted that Russia was consistently exploiting Facebook loopholes in Ukraine, in order to continue running highly-politicized ads. She also noted that, in the United States, a lack of overarching governmental response had made any sort of attempt to crack down on disinformation extremely difficult.
“There’s no recognition of the threat at the highest levels of government,” Jankowicz said. “When you have an embattled institution that’s only one of several working on a problem, the larger government doesn’t recognize that’s a recipe for ineffectiveness. The best strategy is one coordinated at the highest levels.”
Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, noted that, while social media companies have made some effort to crack down on disinformation, the broad push for greater education around this topic that countries like Lithuania, Estonia, and Finland — which regularly experience Russian interference — have implemented with great effect was not present in the United States.
He also emphasized how corrosive the nature of election interference could be, especially in today’s hyper-polarized environment.
“[Election interference] is often very divisive and is it is meant to undermine faith in democratic institutions,” Norden told ThinkProgress. “We saw that in 2016 — a lot of people felt that election wasn’t legitimate because of the interference and the more you have that, particularly in close elections, the more you have people questioning the system that has served us well for centuries… The more intrusions there are, the more our adversaries can undermine people’s confidence in the system.”
“We should be leading on this. Under any other administration this would be at top of agenda, which is clear by a bipartisan interest in this on the Hill,” she said.
“U.S. leadership in a community of democracies is at stake here,” she added.