Editor’s Note: Peter C. Goldmark, Jr., former president of the Rockefeller Foundation and publisher of the International Herald Tribune, served in state and local government roles in New York City, New York State, and Massachusetts. Steven L. Isenberg, former publisher of New York Newsday and chief of staff to New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, is chairman of the board, emeritus, at Adelphi University and a senior adviser for the Committee to Protect the Journalists. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.
2020 has been a year of disruption and danger – and it’s far from over. An enormous threat to our democracy lies around the corner.
Political leadership at all levels has been strained by the pandemic, an economic roller coaster, and a national outpouring of protest over police killings of black Americans. Our health systems were caught short, and politicized temporizing cost us in lives and jobs lost.
The economy’s free fall hit small business hard and high levels of unemployment remain. There is no federal plan on the scale needed for recovery or to support local governments and the services they provide. And George Floyd’s death and the police behavior that caused it are part of longstanding patterns of racism. The anguish, pain and disillusionment, as well as anger, that followed were not surprising.
All this drains public confidence and shakes the common purpose of our society. Yet this is an election year, and an election offers citizens democracy’s clearest opportunity to choose a future course.
But what if our November election turns out to be neither a remedy nor an opportunity, but another source of danger because government ignores the serious possibility of our elections being hacked and the vote count manipulated? Rather than an orderly process ending in an accepted outcome, we could face havoc and a loss of our government’s legitimacy.
It is time to take action so that all of us learn about this danger and tell our elected officials that we must prepare to deal with it.
Elections are controlled and managed by state governments. Because of the political divide in Washington and the present administration’s ducking responsibility on this issue, we suggest that the National Governors Association (NGA) should take the lead.
Their task would be to devise measures that reveal whether hacking has taken place, and if so its extent and degree, and then to consider measures (for example, possible instant audits with volunteer participation by voters) that help determine if a revote in some states is warranted.
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The NGA will need a small bipartisan working group of select governors, state attorneys general, former senior members of the judiciary, and other experienced public servants to manage the process of preparation over the next five months. Experts in cybersecurity, an area which the NGA has recognized as an issue, must be part of this group.
The group should consider adopting guiding principles such as the following:
First, non-partisanship in the broadest and strictest sense of the word.
Second, close cooperation with senior professional figures in the intelligence and national security agencies to learn about actual and attempted acts of election interference, and to solicit suggestions and assistance for what states can do in their integrity efforts.
Third, recognition that election interference may be aimed at objectives other than electing one candidate, such as triggering an inconclusive and muddied result that would throw the election into the House of Representatives or simply create instability in our government and citizenry.
Fourth, the working group and the NGA should have as their highest priority full and timely reports to the public on what is known and what isn’t, what steps they are taking, and why. As we near Election Day, we must be told what and where the most concerning shortcomings are, as well as if and how they may be overcome.
On Election Day, we could enlarge the tradition of volunteer lawyers in every state who protect every eligible voter and election results against clerical errors, ballot problems or machine malfunctions.
If we fail to act wisely and immediately against the threat of interference in our voting, we risk vast damage to the foundations of our democracy and our ability to continue as a self-governing society.