It is not an exercise in hyperbole to claim that American elections — the very foundation of our democracy — are under assault. Russia successfully targeted our last presidential election, and intelligence officials agree that our future elections are in their sights.
At the state and local level, voting systems across the nation are at, or near, their life expectancy, just one step away from catastrophic failure. Meanwhile, President Trump has formed a “voter fraud” commission with members that are hostile to voting rights. Rather than investigating Russians or strengthening our election infrastructure, the commission is investigating you — the American voter.
Last week, Trump’s commission kicked off its witch hunt by requesting that all 50 state election officials turn over personal data, including social security information, date of birth, addresses, voting history, military status, felony convictions and party affiliation of every voter. To make matters worse, the commission is requesting this private data in an unsecured, centralized format susceptible to hacking.
This is a gross invasion of privacy. My response is “No!” And I’m not alone — more than half of the nation’s secretaries of states, both Republicans and Democrats, responded similarly, some refusing data outright, others refusing to send all the requested information.
The commission was created in an attempt to justify the president’s claims that up to 5 million “illegal votes” were cast in the 2016 presidential election. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stacks of bipartisan and independent reports examining dozens of elections, conclude that voter fraud is exceedingly rare and isolated.
For example, a report by Loyola Law School election law expert Justin Levitt found just 31 cases of fraud over 14 years, out of nearly a billion votes cast. The appointment of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has embraced the lie that Trump won the popular vote, sends a clear message. His selection as vice-chair is proof that the ultimate goal of the commission is to enact policies that will result in the disenfranchisement of American citizens.
Our challenge is that too few people vote, not too many. In the 2016 presidential election, over 100 million eligible citizens did not vote. The 2014 midterm election turnout was the lowest since World War II.
In its 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted Voting Rights Act protections that prevented harmful voting changes from going into effect without federal review and pre-approval. This led to dozens of states enacting new barriers to voting. Not since the marches in Selma have we seen such a coordinated and successful effort to suppress the vote.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is focused on further undermining the public’s confidence in our democracy, not strengthening it. California is leading the way to make voting more convenient with online voter registration, in-person early voting, expanded vote-by-mail and automatic voter registration at our Department of Motor Vehicles. These policies produce more accurate voter rolls, while improving voter participation and security.
Congress and the White House have done nothing to improve our much-neglected election infrastructure. The machines that count our ballots, verify our registration, and keep polling places open are aging and in desperate need of replacement. Some local election officials turn to eBay to find spare parts.
Others have computer systems that are so old they cannot be patched with the latest security software. It’s been 15 years since Congress passed the Help America Vote Act that provided funding to modernize our voting systems. The price of inaction is too high.
Not only is Congress ignoring the dire need for funding, it is also seeking to eliminate the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), which plays a critical role in our democracy by setting standards for the testing and security of voting machines, researching improvements to election administrations and tracking vital data about election performance. Eliminating the EAC would unnecessarily put elections at risk, especially given the cyber threats we face today.
Civilian and military intelligence agencies agree that the Russian government was behind the cyberattacks on our elections last year and that they will be back. Just last week, cyber attackers claiming affiliation with ISIS hacked the websites of state and county governments, including Los Angeles County. It is imperative that our nation’s intelligence agencies work with state and local election officials to share threat information.
However, election officials are not receiving critical intelligence on a timely basis. A recent memo leaked by an NSA contractor made this abundantly clear. As Americans, we have a long history of responding to crisis with resolve. Yet, after a successful foreign attack against our elections, the president has shown no interest in defending our democracy.
If this administration refuses to act, then states will lead. In California, we have adopted best practices for election cyberdefense. California requires a mandatory paper trail for every vote, as well as post-election audits. We also prohibit voting machines from being connected to the internet. I am also working with state and local officials to develop a funding plan to replace old voting machines.
Federal support would be very helpful, but unfortunately, President Trump is more concerned with appeasing his ego by pursuing the myth of voter fraud rather than investing in election security. As we celebrate our nation’s independence this week, let’s recommit to defend our democracy from all threats, foreign and domestic.
Alex Padilla is California’s secretary of state.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.