Americans’ ability to fairly choose our own leaders is fundamental to our democracy. Given what we know about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, we must do everything we can at both the federal and state levels to protect the security and integrity of our election systems before voters go to the polls this year.
While the Senate Intelligence Committee continues investigating the full extent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, American intelligence assessments have already established that Russia hacked presidential campaign accounts, launched cyberattacks against at least 21 state election systems and attacked a U.S. voting systems software company. Although there is no evidence that the Russian activity changed vote tallies on Election Day, these intrusions demonstrate a clear vulnerability that foreign hackers will try to exploit in upcoming elections.
This is a wake-up call that we must heed going into upcoming elections. States need to improve and modernize protections for our voting systems, voter registration data and ballots to prevent theft, manipulation and malicious computer hacking.
Fortunately, New Mexico already has numerous policies in place to protect the integrity of our elections — practices that other states are only just now beginning to adopt. For example, in 2009, New Mexico became the first state in the nation to implement risk-based audits following every primary and general election to verify the accuracy of tabulator results. New Mexico also uses a 100-percent paper ballot system as opposed to the touch-screen machines used in many other states, serving to discourage cyberattacks while leaving behind a paper trail should anything unusual occur.
While these forward-thinking policies put New Mexico ahead of the curve, we cannot become complacent. As part of the Elections Government Sector Coordinating Council, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is working with the Department of Homeland Security and other state election officials to improve communication on cyber threats and the overall security of local voting systems. It is imperative for this kind of collaboration between states and the federal government to continue if we are to successfully thwart future attacks on our voting systems by foreign entities.
Sen. Martin Heinrich is part of a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators from both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees that introduced the Secure Elections Act to strengthen election cybersecurity nationwide and protect our election infrastructure against foreign interference. This legislation streamlines cybersecurity information sharing between federal intelligence entities and state election agencies — like the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office. It also provides security clearances and support to state election officials so they can respond to threats.
Social media networks and the post-Citizens United campaign finance landscape provide new fertile ground for hostile influence campaigns. We know that Russia used online tools and bots to target Americans’ social media newsfeeds with propaganda and fake information. Even today, it appears Kremlin-linked accounts are continuing to use these methods to interfere in our democratic process.
Sen. Heinrich has called on the Federal Election Commission to adopt new rules that would prevent foreign nationals from using online advertising platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, to influence U.S. elections. And Secretary Toulouse Oliver adopted a new campaign finance rule last fall to shine a light on some of the dark money spent on political ads in New Mexico.
As the investigations in Washington — on Capitol Hill and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe — continue to acquire a greater understanding of how the Kremlin sought to influence our election, we must learn from what went wrong and set up stronger security measures for our election systems.
All of us need to remember that the Russian government did not interfere with our last presidential election simply to help Donald Trump or damage Hillary Clinton. They did so in order to sow discord in our society and to exacerbate existing divisions in an effort to weaken our country at home and abroad. We have no doubt that Russia — and other foreign adversaries and malicious actors — will continue to target our elections and try to undermine our democracy.
Martin Heinrich is a Democratic U.S. senator from New Mexico. Maggie Toulouse Oliver is the New Mexico secretary of state.