COMMENTARY: Protecting our elections is a bipartisan priority

This summer, the Department of Homeland Security released information that Russian state-sponsored hackers successfully gained access to a network of U.S. electric utilities, which could have disrupted power services and caused blackouts. Officials say the Russian campaign, which started last year, is likely continuing.

It is a stark reminder of the gravity of the threat we face from a nation that is the United States’ most aggressive adversary. Whether it is interfering with our power grid or attacking our elections, Russia has shown a determination to sow discord and undermine the systems that make our country work.

With the November election approaching, it is critical that we pay close attention and focus on our responsibility to strengthen our infrastructure and protect our upcoming elections.

This should not be a partisan issue. Across the country, our voting systems are outdated and vulnerable to attacks. Recently, 11-year-old Emmett Brewer hacked into a replica of Florida’s election results website in 10 minutes and changed names and tallies.

Sen. Chris Coons

This glaring vulnerability presents a problem for every state in the nation, but none more than Delaware, one of five states without paper ballot receipts. Twenty years ago, Delaware became one of the first states to move its election system to a fully electronic structure, which means that in the event of an election breach, it would be near impossible to verify votes if interference is suspected.

In an effort to help solve this problem, I worked with Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma to include $380 million in election security grants in the government funding bill that passed in March. The grants provided at least $3 million to Delaware and each state to assess risks they face in the upcoming elections, replace outdated voting machines without paper ballot receipts, upgrade election computer systems to address cyber vulnerabilities, and more.

I’ve also been in close contact with the Delaware state elections commissioner, and the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have been providing training and risk analysis in our state. Delaware is on track to replace voting machines by 2020.

This is a start, but we need to do more. We need to pass a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Lankford and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, the Secure Elections Act, to strengthen election cybersecurity in America and protect against foreign interference in future elections.

We also need to secure more funds for states to strengthen election security. That’s why this summer, I pushed for an additional $250 million in desperately needed election assistance grants. I fought on the floor of the Senate to secure this funding, but was narrowly defeated.

Some argue that states are just now figuring out how to protect their elections and we shouldn’t just throw money at the problem. My argument: the funding we requested isn’t even enough to buy a wing on an F-35 fighter jet. While elections are principally a state and local responsibility, the indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers this summer for interfering in our 2016 election shows that we face a sophisticated military adversary.

We do not expect states and counties to shoulder defense against Russian attacks, and if our elections in November are significantly complicated by a lack of confidence in the outcome, we’re going to wish we had done everything we could to safeguard them.

This matters. It matters because our vulnerabilities are obvious to the world. It matters because Russia isn’t the only country with a vested interest in interfering in our elections — adversaries like China, Iran, and North Korea have launched cyber attacks on the United States and by doing nothing, we are simply inviting them to do so again.

So let’s not waste our time on partisan fights. Let’s do what we can now to safeguard our democracy. Because ensuring our elections are free, fair and secure is in everyone’s best interest.

Chris Coons is Delaware’s junior U.S. senator.

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