Why electoral integrity is a matter of national security – by Charlotte Lawson

(Photograph by Shay Horse / NurPhoto / Getty Images.)

On January 7, 2021, in the aftermath of the riots by supporters of Donald Trump on the United States Capitol, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying appeared before reporters to compare attempts to undermine democracy in America to efforts continuous efforts of Hong Kong citizens to preserve it.

“[Americans] all condemned it as “a violent incident” and the people involved as “the rioters”, “the extremists” and the “thugs” who brought “disgrace”. Now compare that with what the violent protesters in Hong Kong have been called, “a beautiful spectacle” that you raised and “democratic heroes”. They said ‘the American people are on their side,’ ”Hua said, referring to the city’s pro-democracy protests last year. “What is the reason for such a big difference in the choice of words? Everyone needs to think hard about it and do some soul searching for reason. ”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as is often the case, was less tactful in explaining how Tehran, Beijing and other adversaries viewed the events of January 6. “Have you seen the situation in the United States? It is their democracy and it is their electoral fiasco ”, Khamenei said on twitter. “Today the United States and ‘American values’ are ridiculed even by their friends. ”

In the year since the 2020 presidential election is called for Joe Biden, American politicians and partisan media have made America’s global enemies work for them, sabotaging public confidence in our oldest democratic institutions by relentless disinformation. In a Marist poll from November 1 of this year, nearly 4 in 10 Americans responded that they did not have a “great” or “right amount” of confidence that the elections were fair. Only 33% of Republicans said they would trust the accuracy of election results in 2024 if the GOP presidential candidate did not win.

Former government officials say The Dispatch that this crisis of confidence, properly understood, constitutes a national security emergency.

“What is happening is that domestic actors who are making efforts to undermine confidence in the electoral process are amplified by foreign adversaries, who have repeated and propagated their demands,” said Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of the homeland security of former President George W. Bush. . “When you organize an event like January 6, it is a gift for the autocratic Chinese rulers. He gets to say to his people, “You want democracy in Hong Kong. That’s what you’re going to get, violence.

Chertoff was one of nearly 100 former politicians, cabinet secretaries, military officers and cybersecurity officials who signed an open letter from the nonprofit Protect Democracy calling on Congress to tackle persistent threats against the US electoral system before the 2022 and 2024 elections through legislation. In addition to laws protecting election administrators, the letter called for additional safeguards against irresponsible and partisan audits.

Protecting our electoral processes at home also helps us abroad. Autocratic rulers have long exploited pre-existing fault lines in American society to send the message, to their own people and to allies of the United States, that our form of governance is untenable. For at least five years, the electoral system has been the particular target of these efforts.

“In 2016, we saw the Russians targeting systems that run elections, voter registration databases in particular, but also creating stories, building audiences and sparking discussions on social media,” Matt Masterson , former head of election security at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) during the Trump administration, said The Dispatch. “What we saw in 2020 was largely just them amplifying existing US national narratives. They didn’t have to create the audience or the stories themselves, they just had to share them.

The rapid proliferation of disinformation produced at home and disseminated abroad has a tangible impact not only on public confidence in our democratic processes, but also on our ability to carry out those processes. A June 2021 report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that one in three election officials did not feel safe in their jobs amid persistent threats of violence after last year’s election. . This phenomenon has contributed to a massive exodus from the profession, which is expected to lead to staff shortages in the coming mid-term.

“In a very real way, they had a traumatic experience and they did not have the opportunity to take a step back and assess what they have just experienced and what they continue to live”, a Masterson said. , who resigned his post in December. “2020 hasn’t stopped for them – the threats and targeting haven’t stopped. If we cannot literally secure the people running the elections, the very foundation of the process is shaken. “

Another defector from the Trump administration, Olivia Troye, has maintained frequent contact with some of the election officials who have been personally targeted. “When these threats against election officials and polling stations occur, they must be taken seriously and acted upon,” Troye said. The Dispatch. “These are just people trying to make a contribution to our country in a non-partisan way.”

Very few people have actually been prosecuted for intimidation against election officials. In several states, strengthened criminal laws aim to protect public officials such as judges and law enforcement officials from personal threats. No such sanctions currently exist for those who threaten election officials.

Likewise, many jurisdictions are taking additional steps to protect the privacy of particular groups, such as police officers and victims of domestic violence, but have yet to extend these protections to election officials. With the advent of doxing, a tactic designed to intimidate people into sharing their personal information with hostile actors online, even core investigators find themselves at the center of disinformation campaigns.

“A threat to commit an act of violence against an election official or a member of his family should be treated as if it were a threat against a public official of another kind,” Chertoff said. The Dispatch, “Including a federal civil servant”.

“We have seen major social media accounts, including the former president, sharing and tweeting the names of individual election officials,” Masterson said, adding that action needed to be taken to sufficiently change the calculation of people openly spreading lies that lead to targeting, whether at the polls or in court.

But with minimal repercussions and big potential gains, election misinformation is unlikely to go away anytime soon. A good example is the Arizona “audit” commissioned by Republicans in the Arizona Senate and carried out by Cyber ​​Ninjas. The audit failed to substantiate allegations of widespread electoral fraud, but nonetheless proved lucrative for its organizers, raising $ 5.7 million in donations from Trump-backed groups and donors. The “stolen election” narrative unfolded by the former president and his supporters has made appearances in almost every fundraising initiative since Biden’s victory. This perverse incentive structure fuels damaging narratives and, ironically, weakens electoral security by granting unchecked and untrained individuals access to the voting infrastructure.

Failure to act quickly could lead to a breakdown in the democratic process if the ruling party again rejects the election result, a near miss that Troye witnessed firsthand.

“Over the past year and a half, I worried more and more about the Trump administration when I was in the White House, because I saw how they undermined different government institutions when they didn’t like not the direction something was. come in and it wasn’t on their agenda, ”Troye said. “I’ve seen them undermine the national security community, the intelligence community, the public health community. “

“Fast forward to the end and I remember statements where they were already starting to sow the seeds of potential electoral fraud, when they knew the elections might not go their way,” he said. she adds. “In 2020, I remember having a conversation, actually inside the White House, and saying, ‘If this administration loses, is he really going to leave? What happens if he doesn’t leave? “

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