What’s Missing in Democratic Debates About Russia and Election Security—Cyber Saturday

Cybersecurity received short shrift at this week’s Democratic debates as the U.S. presidential contenders jockeyed for an early lead ahead of next year’s election. But one related topic did catch a modicum of airtime: Russian election interference.

During the first night’s verbal brawl, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made the most noise. He ranked Moscow’s meddling at the top of America’s national security threat list. Russia has “been trying to undermine our democracy and they’ve been doing a pretty damn good job of it and we need to stop them,” he said. His rivals cited climate change, nuclear proliferation, China, and President Donald Trump as the U.S.’s most pressing threats.

Despite the rancor caused by Russian hackers in 2016, the subject of election insecurity surfaced just a few times on Wednesday. An hour and 20 minutes into the 2-hour debate, Beto O’Rourke, former Texas congressman, called out Russian President Vladimir Putin who, he said, “has attacked and invaded our Democracy in 2016 and who President Trump has offered another invitation to do the same.” Ten minutes later, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, talked up her proposed election security legislation while knocking its biggest opponent, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “If we do not do something about Russian interference in the elections and we let Mitch McConnell stop all the backup paper ballots, then we’re not going to get what we want,” Klobuchar said. (Her bill intends to make mandatory voter-verified paper ballots, designed to prevent election tampering.)

Mentions of voting vulnerabilities remained sparse during the next day’s debate; the matter arose mostly as a proxy for censuring Trump. Senator Kamala Harris of California, widely recognized as Thursday evening’s breakout star, justified labeling Trump as the U.S.’s top national security threat by saying “he takes the word of the Russian president over the word of the American intelligence community when it comes to a threat to our democracy and our elections.”

The other contestants raised the election interference issue a few times too. Andrew Yang said the Russians have “been laughing their assess off about” subverting the last U.S. presidential election and “we should focus on that before we start worrying about other threats.” Eric Swalwell, a California congressman, said he would prioritize “breaking up with Russia and making up with NATO” if elected president. And Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado placed Russia atop America’s list of threats “because of what they’ve done with our election.”

(Trump was apparently unfazed by the remarks. A few hours after the Democrats’ debate concluded, he made light of Russia’s electoral intrusions during a meeting with Putin at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. “Don’t meddle in the election,” he said, playfully admonishing Putin with a grin.)

Russia is not the only mischief-maker, of course. Multiple adversaries—China, Iran, and others—seek to influence and interfere with elections both at home and abroad. In those fleeting moments when our presidential hopefuls talked about the importance of election security, they tended to play up the Moscow menace at the expense of other threats. The tactic can make for an effective soundbite. But let’s not kid ourselves. Moscow is hardly the only foreign power angling to sway the 2020 race.


While the Democrats were facing off Thursday night, I attended the Loeb Awards dinner where Andy Greenberg, senior writer at Wired, deservedly won the “international” category for his piece, “The Code that Crashed the World.” Read it. It’s an outstanding, insider account documenting the wreckage of NotPetya, one of the worst cyberattacks in history. In his acceptance speech, Greenberg called attention to the murky world of cyberwar, which is having disastrous, life-threatening effects in places such as Russia-besieged Ukraine. Distances between nation states have collapsed in the digital realm. Congrats and good on you for raising awareness, Andy.

A version of this article first appeared in Cyber Saturday, the weekend edition of Fortune’s tech newsletter Data Sheet. Sign up here.

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