On July 4, Americans of all political stripes joined together to celebrate our nation’s independence from overseas monarchs, from foreign influence, from interference in our democracy.
This is the moment to apply the lessons of 2016, when our election infrastructure — the core of American democracy — was attacked by a foreign adversary in a choreographed and coordinated effort. State and local election systems across the country were probed and, in some cases, breached. Outsiders exploited digital platforms to wage a full-scale disinformation campaign. And secret foreign money was deployed to influence the electoral outcome.
As elected officials, we swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and guard against foreign interference in our domestic affairs. Each and every one of us at the federal, state and local levels has a duty to safeguard our election systems. The alarming findings of the Mueller Report, along with several assessments from our nation’s intelligence community, warn that we are woefully unprepared for similar attacks that will be coming in 2020.
We must spring into action.
Securing our election systems requires close coordination among officials at all levels of government. States are responsible for administering elections, but the federal government is an indispensable partner in providing the financial resources and cybersecurity expertise necessary to help protect our election systems.
In Maryland, we continue to take steps to secure our election system. Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 743, legislation empowering the state administrator of elections to terminate any vendor upon a determination that a foreign national has the ability to control, influence or direct the vendor in a manner that could compromise or influence the independence and integrity of our elections. But we need the federal government to step up and do its part.
Democrats in the House of Representatives are taking this responsibility seriously. As our first order of business, we introduced and passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which provides billions of dollars in assistance to states to help improve their election system security. H.R. 1 also requires the Department of Homeland Security and director of national intelligence to share threat data and best practices for security with state election officials and requires the president to develop a national strategy to defend our democratic institutions.
Inexplicably, no House Republicans chose to join Democrats in voting for H.R. 1, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused even to allow a vote on it in his chamber. Recently, Republicans were afforded yet another opportunity to show their patriotism when Democrats introduced a standalone election security bill, the Safeguarding America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act. Focused exclusively on protecting the integrity of the ballot box, the SAFE Act would modernize our election systems by providing new resources to states to improve election infrastructure, increasing the adoption of paper ballots and ensuring the accuracy of the vote tallies. But Leader McConnell yet again has barred the door, indicating that he will refuse to hold a vote on or debate this commonsense legislation in the Senate.
The American people deserve to have confidence that our elections are fair and free from foreign intrusion. As we marked Independence Day and celebrated our country’s freedom from influence abroad, we must join together in this patriotic undertaking to protect our country from foreign attacks. It is time for congressional Republicans to take seriously the threats to our democracy and help give states such as Maryland the tools and resources they urgently need to protect our elections. Anything less is an abdication of their constitutional duty.
John Sarbanes represents Maryland’s Third Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives and chairs the House Democracy Reform Task Force. Brian E. Frosh is the attorney general of Maryland and chairs the Maryland Cybersecurity Council. They wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.