Putin-Proofing 2020 Elections

by Christopher Walsh

As the United States approaches 2020, what can we be doing to “Putin-proof” our elections?

Trump formally kicked off his 2020 re-election campaign in Orlando.

Foreign authoritarian powers are undermining democracy worldwide and I can’t help but make parallels to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. Much like a triumphant West after the Cold War, many in the Potter-verse had believed Lord Voldemort—the main antagonist in the series— was defeated.  Unbeknownst to them, the dark wizard was hiding in plain sight, reshaping influential institutions, manipulating political leaders, and engineering fake news.

Like Voldemort, authoritarian regimes have been quietly maneuvering pillars of our open society – free expression, media, free and fair elections – to undermine the liberal democratic order. However, these attacks were not taken seriously until Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. There’s consensus across U.S. intelligence agencies that foreign powers, most prominently Russia, meddled. Even then, only half of Americans believe it.

In 2016, cyber-attacks targeted the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, publicizing private emails to sway voter decisions. In 2018, interference continued but to a lesser extent. Moscow and others have excelled at weaponizing social media, using platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to blur truth and enflame American political tensions.

The United States is not alone. Our democratic allies— Canada, Germany, France, the U.K. and elsewhere— have suffered similar assaults. Canada is now grappling with how to safeguard their upcoming federal elections and their success will be something to watch. The global scope and aim of this meddling by dictatorships in Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and others represent an existential threat to democracy and international security.

As the United States approaches 2020, the onslaught may have already begun. So, is it possible to “Putin-proof” our elections? Not completely, but we can learn from previous attacks to make our elections and our citizens more resilient. However, this is not an Election Day-only activity, it’s an ongoing process that starts now.

The 2018 midterms showed progress in developing our resilience to meddling, but our government, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement must continue to improve infrastructure. In recent Congressional testimony, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency Director Chris Krebs detailed his department’s efforts to prepare for attacks including simulating cyber-attacks and responses, hosting a portal that facilitates rapid coordination for election officials nationwide, offering cyber hygiene services, and identifying and upgrading vulnerable election infrastructure. He also stated the department is doubling down efforts for 2020.

There must be bipartisan consensus for punishing those who interfere in our elections. There are existing mechanisms that could be utilized such as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or perhaps the Global Magnitsky Act.  Relatedly, our elected officials should use their pulpit to name and shame authoritarian leaders in public while coordinating with media and civil society to expose attacks.

However, resilience efforts must expand beyond the government level to include multi-sector coalitions – civil society, media, and the tech industry – in safeguarding our elections. For example, authoritarian regimes have tried to confuse voters or discredit results by spreading false information via social media. Civic education and awareness campaigns backed by credible organizations would be a potent countermeasure. Public-private partnerships can conduct highly publicized, bipartisan voter education campaigns at the national, state, and local levels; providing voters reliable information regarding voter registration, election dates, polling locations, candidates, and results. Bipartisan endorsement of these campaigns from political leaders would be critical to their success.

Taking these campaigns a step further, the same coalitions can also collaborate and promote greater media literacy on social platforms. These programs can identify foreign propaganda pushers, such as RT or Sputnik, and social media accounts linked to authoritarian troll factories like Russia’s Internet Research Agency.  Such efforts must also summarize trolling tactics to help voters view suspicious news sources more critically.

We must also support U.S. soft power that promotes good governance, transparency, and strengthens democratic institutions in countries that aren’t free.  This reflects a broader approach to combating malign foreign influence, but it should be considered part of the toolbox in safeguarding our elections. After all, the problem corrects itself if there are fewer authoritarian governments undermining our process and more democracies accountable to their people.

Finally, every American citizen also plays a vital role. Remember, these attackers want to exacerbate social tensions by obscuring truth and manipulating narratives around candidates and issues; so, let’s take away the fuel these trolls use to exploit us. When faced with controversial topics – on social media or in person –don’t rush to judgement, choose compassion over contempt, don’t exaggerate, disagree respectfully, search for common ground, and focus on arguing ideas not mudslinging.

Foreign malign influence and election meddling is happening, and it targets all Americans – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, everyone. Let’s fight back using our greatest strength: exercising and promoting the values of a free, democratic society.

Christopher Walsh serves as Senior Program Manager for the Human Freedom and Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Christopher manages communications, evaluation, and public policy research projects that advance freedom and democracy in the world.

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