Elections

Can the FEC pivot to protect election tech?

 

An electronic voting machine.

The agency charged with enforcing campaign finance rules faces a new high-tech threat that it's not equipped to handle, says a former federal elections official.

At an Aug. 31 event hosted by Georgetown University, former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission Robert Lenhard said that digital media have altered political campaigns and how they're influenced. 

"Technology is changing the nature of our campaigns," he said.

While that alone presents its own set of concerns, Lenhard added that the risk of electoral influence at the hands of a foreign government "is much greater" than that of a rogue malefactor.

"The interjection of foreign nationals, for me, is most disturbing in the area of technology," he said. "The effect of opposition research when done by a foreign government is dramatically different and more powerful.... [And] the ability of a nation state to command significant computer resources gives it a disproportionate advantage."

Lenhard also pointed out the use of social media and the changing ways people consume information have become more nebulous, making it harder to apply campaign finance laws designed for purchased advertisements on more traditional broadcasts.

"How do you write a piece of legislation that tells Google that ... when it comes to a search on a political issue, they have to make sure that equal time is given to all candidates in that space on your search results?" he asked, referring to the provision under communications law that is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission and applies to broadcast TV and radio stations but not the internet.

In terms of preventing international influence in the future, Lenhard advocated for the FEC to collaborate with other agencies, especially those that work directly in trying to prevent cyber intrusions from foreign entities.

In direct response to allegations of the Russian interference of the 2016 presidential election, Lenhard cautioned against rushing to write regulations catering to concerns in the digital, and international, space.

“None of these are short-term fixes,” he said.

However, he did add that the FEC should be considering if the U.S. has "a regulatory regime that's adequate to protect our election from foreign nationals."

Although the commission’s structure -- which prohibits more than three of its six chairs to be from either major political party -- is designed for balance, Lenhard observed that commission activities have frequently deadlocked in recent years.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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