By RICHARD A. CLARKE and ROBERT K. KNAKE on July 13, 2017

In recent days, our nation’s response to the continued threat of foreign meddling in American elections has taken something of a surprising turn. Coming off his two-hour conversation on Friday with Vladimir Putin in Hamburg, President Donald Trump touted Putin’s personal assurance that there was neither any Russian manipulation of the 2016 election nor any Russian plans to disrupt future American elections. He even floated the prospect of creating a joint U.S.-Russia “impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.”

As if Putin is trustworthy. As if his assurances are more believable than the mountain of evidence demonstrating the exact opposite.

“They will be back,” former FBI Director James Comey warned the Senate last month. Russia’s meddling in the U.S. elections was not a one-time affair; it’s an ongoing offensive with the singular goal of undermining and debasing American democracy. Russia could well interfere in the 2020 presidential vote, or the 2018 midterm elections just 16 months away.

They will be back. And when they are, we better be ready with a plan that’s suited to our current moment.

As with almost every other aspect of our culture, the emergence of the internet and the relatively recent advent of social media are profoundly disrupting our democracy. It is a new and open issue as to whether our kind of self-government can function successfully when: one, much of the electorate gets its news from social media easily employed by foreign powers, and; two, infrastructure of all types—perhaps including the voting system—can be infiltrated by sophisticated hackers based overseas.

When it comes to election infrastructure, we have to keep in mind that since the birth of the republic, the federal government and the states have had a contentious relationship over voter protection dating to the post-Civil War era, if not earlier. That history means that any national effort to combat foreign interference with elections must be done with a delicate touch. America’s elections are administered locally, and any heavy-handed federal regulations of the voting system will go over poorly with state legislators, election commissioners and secretaries of state.

What might a more deft approach look like? Thankfully, the federal government has a model to build upon: It can use the same approach that it already takes on the 16 other sectors of critical infrastructure and focus on building voluntary partnerships with state and local governments.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology already has a role in developing standards that address the security of computers, networks and data storage used in voting system. But beyond a simple federal mandate, the NIST needs to work with the states to put its guidelines through a workshop process, both to address states’ concerns and get them to buy in. Historically, one such concern has been that upgrades to election infrastructure can be pricey, and many cash-strapped states are simply unable to afford even the most essential improvements. Here, the federal government has a carrot to offer, as Senator Angus King (I-Maine) has proposed: federal funding for some aspects of administering elections, which could be tied to states adhering to new nationwide election standards.


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Richard A. Clarke was special adviser to the president for cyber security in the George W. Bush administration.
Robert K. Knake was director for cyber security policy on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. He is the co-author, with Richard A. Clarke, of CYBER WAR: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It.