How To Protect Our Elections
Go with the ‘Goldilocks approach.’
The evidence collected by Special Counsel Robert Mueller—and others—have revealed that Russia clearly attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, although the efficacy of that effort may be subject to debate.
There is also a consensus that we should take steps to deter such actions from occurring again. Besides putting pressure on our social media companies to police their sites better, Congress is also considering legislation that would place sanctions on Russia if it attempts to influence another election.
For instance, Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act, which would institute sanctions on major sectors of the Russian economy if the Director of National Intelligence declared that actors in the country attempted to influence an election.
Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), along with a handful of other sponsors, recently rolled out the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression (DASKA) Act, which would also impose new sanctions on energy projects outside of Russia that Moscow supports, as well as block U.S. companies from investing or engaging in any energy projects within Russia.
While punishing Russia—or any other country—via sanctions for such perfidy makes perfect sense, one problem with both bills is that they are so broad that they could potentially harm U.S. businesses more than Russia itself. For instance, prohibiting U.S. companies from supplying Russian energy ventures will do little to slow down energy development in the country; instead, it will simply open the door for companies in other countries to replace U.S. companies.
Many U.S. business operations are deeply involved in Russia’s energy, financial, transportation, mining, and mineral sectors. These economic connections have proven to be largely positive avenues for cooperation. While it is true that Russia’s government has the ability to exert a high degree of suasion on any commercial concern in the country, it is not clear to what extent its government will feel any pain from a resulting sanction that targets them instead of the Russian government per se or its senior officials.
Sanctioning Russian financial institutions writ large, rather than just those with a tangible connection to any nefarious behavior, could be even more problematic to U.S. businesses. It also would potentially impact what has been an admirable job by the country’s central bank to reform its corrupt, ossified financial market and bring it up to Western standards to the extent possible.
Instead, it makes more sense to take a narrower approach to sanctioning. For instance, the Cyber Deterrence and Response Act, co-authored by senators Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), establishes a tractable framework for handling state-sponsored cyberattacks against the United States. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) authored the companion piece in the House.
The bill would require the president’s national security team to designate each foreign person, business, or agency engaged in state-sponsored cyber-crime against the U.S. as a “critical cyber threat actor”—not the entire country—and to sanction that particular miscreant. It would also provide an opportunity for the president to waive any sanctions on a case-by-case basis, giving the Administration the ability to allow entities to do business with Americans once they cease to be a cyber threat.
Punishing rogue actors and nation) that use nefarious social media activities to influence U.S. elections needs to be a major component in our attempt to deter such shenanigans in the future. But it’s important that the penalties we implement do indeed inconvenience those who misbehave first and foremost while undermining U.S. entities as little as possible. Legislation like DETER and DASKA will have the counterproductive effects of enriching Russian actors while harming American business operations. A more targeted approach that punishes Russia first and foremost should it continue meddling in America’s political system should be the result of legislation.
Ike Brannon is a fellow at the Jack Kemp Foundation.