The President’s recent comments on Russian meddling in the 2016 elections cycle have been a low point in his administration. His confusing statements and failure to correctly articulate his position on Russian involvement in 2016 demonstrate an instability in leadership that threatens our democracy. It also provides a stark contrast to information presented by U.S. Intelligence officials over the last two years.
As Rhode Island’s Secretary of State and Chief State Election official, I have attended multiple high-level security briefings with intelligence experts from across the country. In our conversations, they have made it clear that the threat to our elections from Russia and other foreign actors is real and will continue. At the most recent National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) Summer Conference, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen addressed a room full of top election officials from across the country labeling Russian activity and any attempt to interfere in the U.S. elections a direct attack on our democracy.
I believe it important to set the record straight for Rhode Island voters. There are two ways the Russians and others are trying to undermine the U.S. elections system – through actual penetration of hardware and software and through informational warfare – information that uses our freedom of speech to sow further discord between us.
Since being sworn in as your Secretary of State I have taken steps every day to strengthen our elections and mitigate the risk of an attack. Our collaboration with the members of the intelligence community has been a key ingredient in the continuous improvement to safeguard our elections.
Over the past year, we have strengthened relationships with our federal partners, specifically the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We have also taken advantage of state resources such as the nationally renowned cyber unit at the Rhode Island National Guard and the expertise of faculty members at Salve Regina University and Brown University.
In 2015 and 2016, I am grateful that the General Assembly and the Governor supported my purchase of state of the art voting equipment that uses a paper ballot and has much more sophisticated technical security. We created a Cyber Security Officer position in our IT Division and bolstered our staff and software.
But elections are a community-wide process. That’s why I have convened Rhode Island’s local elections officials and IT staff for trainings on elections cybersecurity. The most important message is that cybersecurity is not a destination. What seems reasonably secure may not be so a year later. In order to protect our elections we need to have a continuous process of assessment, improvement of our systems and mitigation of risk.
Earlier this month, I testified in front of the House Committee on Homeland Security outlining the many initiatives Rhode Island has taken on in defense of its elections systems. I encouraged our members in Congress to provide more resources for states to defend themselves from this ever-changing landscape. As a recently appointed member of the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (EIS-GCC), I will continue to advocate for not just funding, but transparency and accountability.
The challenges our democracy faces require an ongoing commitment to those working on the front lines, to prepare for threats that were nonexistent five years ago. As these threats evolve funding, training and transparent communication are critical to protecting our democracy.
To be clear, our country is facing a very real threat presented by Russian and other foreign actors who want to erode the public’s trust in the integrity of our elections. These attacks are focused on undermining our representative democracy. As your Secretary of State, I acknowledge this threat and remain vigilant in protecting our elections systems. I am working with the State Board of Elections and local elections officials to defend our democracy.
The best way for eligible Rhode Islanders to help in this defense is to stay informed and vote. Before jumping on an opinion or fact, prepare yourself by researching the origin of your information sources.
Go to vote.ri.gov and check your voter information. We need to make sure government is held accountable to the people it serves. We must continue our example as the government of the people, by the people and for the people.