Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during an Atlanta news conference on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during an Atlanta news conference on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. AP / Brynn Anderson

Secretaries of State Are Now on the Frontlines of Defending Democracy

They need better access to national resources.

The rise of attacks on our democracy through disinformation and attempted voting system hacks mean that state government officials — and particularly secretaries of state — are now key to national security. 

Until now, secretaries of state have quietly performed important administrative duties including upholding the democratic process. The Constitution leaves the conduction of elections up to the states and, as a result, officials didn’t need much engagement outside of their own borders. Some state officials even resisted having election infrastructure designated as “critical infrastructure” by the Department of Homeland Security for fear of federal encroachment. Now, many of those same officials work closely with federal agencies as they endure national criticism, and even death threats, to administer and secure fair elections.

The last four years have made clear that state officials are now in a struggle against hostile powers who are determined to attack our elections and they need national resources in order to defend our democratic systems.

First, secretaries of state need to create robust relationships with federal defense, intelligence and law enforcement officials, starting with home-state National Guard units. Some states have these relationships already but there is wide variance. For example, Louisiana called in their state Guard to stop a series of cyber attacks against state officials just weeks before the election, while other states have almost no coordination at all. The benefit of the Guard, in particular, is that it can operate under either federal or state authorities, as the situation dictates. That makes the Guard an ideal bridge between the state and federal governments. However, it’s important to keep in mind that secretaries of state are typically independently elected constitutional officers in their respective states. That means they cannot always assume the support of the governor (who may be of a different political party) or other state agencies. This is why relationships with, and the support of, the federal government will be crucial. In particular, the Department of Defense should offer support for cybersecurity training, as well as provide assistance during emergencies, in a subordinate status to the state.

Second, as owners of “critical infrastructure,” secretaries of state should hold and use active security clearances provided by the Department of Homeland Security so they can know about incoming threats. They should also be active participants in organizations like the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center so they can collaborate about incoming threats. The Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency has done great work in these areas that can readily be built upon. 

Third, and most importantly, secretaries of state must become credible on security and disinformation so they can be seen as trustworthy by the public. The Russians, and Soviets before them, have long employed a type of information warfare that they call “active measures” in order to undermine their adversaries. As former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze put it, the goal was to win via the "force of politics" instead of the "politics of force." Using the internet and social media, our adversaries can now instantly send their propaganda to every American at massive scale and basically for free. To thwart this, elections officials must balance being open about our vulnerabilities and challenges without undermining our collective faith in the system itself. In some ways, elections are like banks; the faith in the system matters almost as much as its physical security. This will require a significant amount of credibility with the public, which can only be built from a track record of honesty and competency. 

Make no mistake, secretaries of state have now become some of the most important security officials in the country. If we empower them and prioritize these changes, we can ensure the security of our most fundamental democratic institutions.

Mike McNerney is the Co-Founder and Chair of the Institute for Security & Technology and Chief Operations Officer of Resilience. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a seasoned cybersecurity executive.

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