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Why Washington Should Protect Our Elections

February 2, 2018 3 minute Read by Thomas Melia
The attacks on our democracy are real and continuing, and the intelligence community has said they expect it to affect our elections later this year, and again in 2020.

There has been a lot of discussion about what President Trump said, and how he said it, in his State of the Union address on January 30.  But one of the most important things is what he did not address: the need for the United States to enhance its resilience to nefarious Russian intervention in our political process. 

This has been the topic of daily turmoil in Washington and news reporting since before the 2016 election – and yet the administration has articulated no plan to address it.  The State of the Union was a lost opportunity to do so.  Though the attacks on our democracy are real and continuing, and the intelligence community has said they expect it to affect our elections later this year, and again in 2020.  Yet it wasn’t mentioned. 

In his widely noted speech in mid-October, President Bush said—

The Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. This effort is broad, systematic and stealthy, and it’s conducted across a range of social media platforms. …  We must secure our electoral infrastructure and protect our electoral system from subversion. 

In the Call to Action paper Pete Wehner and I wrote for the Bush Institute that was released on the same day, we noted that this Russian effort “used a combination of cyber-attacks, disinformation, and financial influence ... to undermine Americans’ faith in the legitimacy of our democracy.” 

 Among the recommendations we made were several that should be high priority for the president and the Congress to be acting on now: 

  • Secure the election infrastructure from cyber mischief;
  • Increase transparency in who is funding political advertising;
  • Eliminate hidden foreign money in American politics;
  • Learn from other nations that have also been attacked by Russia;
  • Enlist social media in the fight (these are American companies, after all);
  • Train our citizens to be smarter consumers of news and information;
  • Launch a presidential commission – like the 9/11 Commission – to develop more detailed and far-reaching steps to take. 

A State of the Union address is an occasion to set forth the national agenda for the year.  It often includes a set of recommendations to the Congress on urgent action items in the national interest.  Sadly, this was an opportunity missed.


Thomas  Melia
Thomas Melia

As a fellow with the Human Freedom Initiative, Thomas O. Melia is helping lead an effort to reaffirm core values of freedom, free markets, and liberal democracy. One of the goals of the Human Freedom Initiative is to foster a new bipartisan consensus that it is in the American interest to advance these principles at home and around the world.

Mr. Melia recently served in two senior positions in the Administration of President Barack Obama. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Democracy and Labor from 2010 to 2015, he was responsible for the bureau’s work in Europe, South and Central Asia, and the Middle East. From December 2015 to January 2017, he served as Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mr. Melia has written for numerous publications, including the Washington Post, The New Republic, Journal of Democracy and The American Interest. He is co-editor of Today’s American: How Free? – a comprehensive assessment of the state of civil liberties and political democracy in the United States.

Earlier in his career, Mr. Melia was Deputy Executive Director of Freedom House; Vice President for Programs at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs; and a legislative assistant to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY). He has taught in the graduate programs at Georgetown University and The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Mr. Melia lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with his spouse, Amy S. Conroy, and their son, Tomás.

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