This op-ed originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun.
Our country is facing a national emergency. Not a single credible person in the federal government disputes the fact that foreign actors will continue to attack the infrastructure of our elections and interfere with how we choose our leaders. President Trump even told ABC News last week that he would consider listening to foreign governments with opposition research on his opponents in 2020.
Regardless of our party or view about the 2020 elections, the facts of the matter are this: Russia, China, Iran and other enemies of democracy want us to lose faith in our political institutions. It’s the only way to try to destroy a Western superpower in the 21st century — not with a single act of brute force, but a thousand subversive acts that undermine the trust that holds a democracy together.
We have to fight back.
It’s time to declare a national emergency to rally the necessary resources from state and federal agencies and members of Congress to prevent Russia or any other foreign actors from interfering in our elections, as they did in 2016. But — unlike instances of extreme weather (hurricanes, floods) or public health emergencies (opioid epidemic, Flint water crisis) in the past several years — members of Congress have been largely gridlocked and unresponsive on this front. This is particularly striking, given that it is their elections upon which havoc will be wreaked. (Recall that Iran impersonated multiple congressional candidates in the midterm elections.)
Thankfully, though, some seeds of action exist that need to be watered and cultivated as quickly as possible. A handful of legislative proposals are pending in both chambers — supported by both parties — that would address foreign interference in our elections. Some bills would close advertising loopholes foreign actors abuse on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (the playbook they used in 2016), while others would allow our government to better enforce foreign lobbying restrictions, streamline and increase cybersecurity resources, help states strengthen their election infrastructure or require campaigns to report contacts from foreign entities.
One of the leaders in this effort is U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, who was the chief architect of the For the People Act, also known in D.C. as H.R. 1, the most sweeping political reform package in a generation. Now the Maryland Democrat is a co-sponsor, with 32 other Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, of the bipartisan Honest Ads Act, the best first step to preventing hidden, foreign disinformation campaigns in our elections.
The legislation would help us, the voters, see who is targeting us with paid ads on Facebook, Twitter and Google — the platforms of choice for Russia and others seeking to sow discord and prey on divisions among Americans, particularly on hot-button social issues. How? Simply by extending the same common sense disclosure requirements that already exist for television and radio ads (think of the “paid for by X” line on the bottom of TV advertisements) to online ads.
The Honest Ads Act is endorsed by more than 115 former members of Congress, governors and former Cabinet members from both parties who delivered a powerful letter to Congress when the bill was re-introduced last month. It is also supported by Silicon Valley’s largest technology companies, including Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Twitter. Other legislation that would impose greater sanctions on Russia as it continues trying to interfere in our elections or provide the states with greater resources to administer elections also has bipartisan support.
But we have to act fast. The major political parties and campaigns are still ill-equipped to prevent or respond to the major cyberattacks and digital deception that will come their way as the 2020 elections speed toward us.
The Honest Ads Act is the first step in what must be a concerted effort to both protect our elections and to move American democracy forward. What’s at stake is not just guaranteeing that the 2020 elections are free, fair and lacking interference by foreign actors, but democracy everywhere.
Nick Penniman (Twitter: @Nick_Penniman) is CEO of Issue One, a political reform group that unites Republicans Democrats, and independents in the movement to fix the broken political system. He is also the co-author of “Nation on the Take.”