“Democracy Under Attack”: Senator Mark Warner on the Future of Election Security

SARAH BRYANT: On Tuesday evening, in an event co-sponsored by GU Politics and Georgetown College Democrats, Virginia Senator Mark Warner spoke to a packed audience about the implications of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and what must be done to protect election systems as we adapt to a new cyber battlefield. As vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Warner has a front-row seat to the investigation into Russian election interference. This expertise, along with his background in the tech industry, was evident as he described the continued threat of cyber attacks beyond the political sphere and elaborated on many practical measures we can take to increase security.

On the reality of modern cybersecurity threats:

From the start of the discussion, Sen. Warner emphasized that countries have spied on each other for decades. Nevertheless, the events of 2016 were in many ways uncharted territory. The senator attributed this shift in part to the tool of social media, a cheap distribution model that easily facilitated the spread of political misinformation, as well as Russia’s decision that misinformation techniques are the “tools of the future.” Warner spoke with urgency about how easy it has become for outside actors to potentially swing elections simply by placing malware in voter files or removing names from precinct lists. This ominous possibility underscored how necessary it is for states to upgrade their election systems and follow meaningful election security rules. For Warner, this issue transcends party lines: “there’s nothing conservative/liberal about this;” instead it’s a matter of “future/past,” the creation of a modern framework to combat emerging threats.

On the question of collusion:

Despite the increasingly politicized environment surrounding the Mueller investigation, Sen. Warner remained measured in his assessment of the probe’s status. He praised Mueller’s handling of the investigation but emphasized the need for him to act sooner rather than later. Though hesitant to make any claims regarding the presence or absence of collusion, Warner pointed to the many guilty pleas made by Trump associates that could be providing evidence to Mueller of which the public, and Warner himself, are yet unaware. Above all, he aimed to extricate the facts of election meddling from the collusion investigation, pointing out the near unanimous agreement among lawmakers and the intelligence community that Russian election interference was carried out on behalf of the Trump campaign.

On where we go from here:

Despite the wide extent of our cyber vulnerabilities, Sen. Warner indicated many possible steps forward to make improvements. Social media companies have been at the nexus of pressures to improve transparency and data security, and Warner provided an often-technical explanation of potential “guardrails” for them, from privacy regulations to the use of identity authentication and geoindicators. Responding to questions regarding cyberdefense, he stipulated that America is not necessarily weaker or less advanced than other countries, but that we have been reluctant to use our offensive cyber capabilities for fear of escalation. Ultimately, he reiterated that change requires a modern, future-oriented mindset, though members of both parties have at times been “totally stuck in the 20th century” and must improve their technological understanding

To wrap up the conversation, Sen. Warner was asked what young people can do as individuals regarding this issue. “We need your ideas,” he responded, maintaining that students have a role in generating solutions,using their technology wisely, and knowing the value of their votes. The issue of election security is crucial because it affects the very core of our democratic institutions, yet many often forget it amidst the rapid news cycles and the politicization of investigations. As the midterms approach, it’s imperative that these concerns remain at the forefront of our national political consciousness and students have a role to play in generating this understanding.

Max Magid