Lawmakers in the House have recently introduced a bipartisan-backed bill aimed at deterring foreign interference in US elections. The bill titled the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act was introduced to the House floor by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Brad Schneider (D-IL). The legislation essentially sets down rules for punishing international actors that try to influence public opinion during elections.
While the bill subjects all countries to the same penalties, the primary target of the legislation was Russia. Ros-Lehtinen told media in a statement, “Russia blatantly meddled in our 2016 elections, as well as previous elections, in an attempt to erode public trust in our electoral process and undermine our democratic institutions. It will undoubtedly do so again.”
The bill lays out specific actions that would warrant retaliation by the federal government. The list of offenses includes a foreign power or agent buying political advertisements aimed at swaying an election, or the intentional spreading of false information through social media. The bill also lists hacking into election campaign infrastructure and releasing or modifying information obtained through a hack as acts that would require a US response. A quick examination of these prohibitions reveals that these are all methods that were used by the Russian troll armies during the previous presidential election.
So how would the US be required to respond to election interference if DETER is passed?
On this point, the bill is less specific. DETER does require sanctions to be implemented in at least some instances of proven election meddling. In others, the bill requires the administration to come up with appropriate penalties.
There are clear signs that this bill or some version of it will soon become law. The Senate version of DETER was introduced by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) just two weeks ago. At the time Rubio said in an official statement that the purpose of the bill was nothing less than protecting the integrity of the American democracy. “We cannot be a country where foreign intelligence agencies attempt to influence our political process without consequences,” read the document posted to Rubio’s website. “This bill will help to ensure the integrity of our electoral process by using key national security tools to dissuade foreign powers from meddling in our elections.”
The real question is what initial steps will be required to monitor elections in the event DETER is passed by Congress. A slew of policy plans have been enacted in Washington over the past several months aimed at improving election security. The concern arising from that trend is that it will trigger more intrusion at the federal level into local government operations. On the other hand, it could very well be that some assistance from the feds is exactly what state governments need. Dozens of states have already lined up to receive screening tests on their electoral infrastructure from a Department of Homeland Security program.
With the midterm elections approaching, any actions taken on the part of Washington to secure the electoral system will have to happen quickly.