Democrats have been criticized from within their own ranks for focusing on the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election when an economic message could be more effective against Republicans, who are in the middle of pushing an extremely unpopular health care bill through Congress. In his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month, ousted FBI Director James Comey insisting that all Americans should be concerned about the prospect of a foreign power influencing the outcome of a democratic election. He told the committee, “it’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world.”
But there’s no denying that the issue can feel remote: it only directly concerns officials at the highest levels of the Russian and American governments, along with anonymous computer hackers on the other side of the world. The principal victims were Hillary Clinton and high-ranking members of her campaign; hardly avatars for the average American. And oh yeah, it all happened seven months ago — there’s a great temptation, especially if you support the president, to believe that the past is in the past, and Democrats should move on.
The trouble with that line of thinking is that Russia’s interference operation is not “in the past.” Former CIA director John Brennan said in May that Russia could try to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections in the United States. Such an operation would broadly differ from the 2016 attacks in two ways: First, Russia could intervene on behalf of candidates from both parties, depending on who would best serve their interests, and second, the attacks could have a deeper impact at the local and state level.
This serves to underscore the continued importance of the Russia issue to the American voter. Vladimir Putin’s campaign to undermine American democracy did not end in 2016: It is ongoing, and some Republicans may soon find themselves in the same position Democrats were in last year.
Moreover, the more involved Russia becomes in state and local elections, the greater the chance that this issue will have a tangible effect on ordinary citizens. Russia’s actions aren’t just a threat to some abstract notion of democratic choice or electoral integrity — when these hackers get into voter rolls, they gain access to voters’ personal information.
Particularly troubling were the reports on Thursday that Russian hackers were able to access and alter state and local election databases in 2016, in some cases stealing voters’ driver's license and Social Security numbers. Additionally, it emerged last week that the Russians targeted Dallas County voter registration rolls during the election last year — so this is an issue that should matter to Texans, specifically. If they can do this to Dallas, they can do it to Austin, and Houston, and San Antonio, and beyond.
Russia intervened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That much has been concluded with “high confidence” by the intelligence community, and even begrudgingly admitted by the president himself, on whose behalf the Russians intervened. But it’s not enough to acknowledge that fact: local, state, and federal officials should be doing everything they can to prepare for future attempts at interference, by Russia or by any other foreign agent. As Comey himself warned in his testimony, “they will be back.”
Groves is a philosophy junior from Dallas. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.