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EDITORIAL: Voting systems need vote of confidence
In his effort to muddy the waters surrounding the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, President Donald Trump is not only obstructing justice, he is — more seriously — endangering the nation’s institution of elective government.
Because it’s always all about Trump with Trump, the president sees the probe as an effort to undermine his legitimacy — ignoring the fact that he’s doing a fine job of that himself.
If the president could put nation before ego for two seconds, he would realize the most important goal of the investigation is to determine to what extent Russian hacking took place last year, how it was undertaken, and what can be done to prevent or minimize similar attacks in the future.
While we can evidently expect no assistance from the Trump administration, there are plenty of lawmakers who are taking the threat seriously. Pennsylvania Sen. Mike Folmer, for one.
The York Republican this month invited elections experts before the Senate’s State Government Committee, which he chairs, to determine a) how the state’s electoral system performed on Nov. 8, 2016, and b) what improvements may be needed to safeguard Pennsylvania ballot boxes from outside meddling in the future.
The effort is timely. Bloomberg News reported this month that Russian hackers struck targets in at least 39 states last year. While it is unknown if Pennsylvania was among them — only three states were named: Illinois, California and Florida — it would be folly for any state to assume it is not in the crosshairs of Russian attempts at electoral malfeasance.
Those testifying at Folmer’s session reminded the public that the state’s voting equipment, like that in many states, is aging. That’s a dual-edged sword, security-wise.
The nation’s old and decentralized voting infrastructure has — thus far, anyway — proven a little too low-tech to effectively hack. That’s partly why no evidence has been uncovered that vote counts in Pennsylvania, or any other state, were effectively manipulated last year.
Still, state and national leaders can’t expect their luck to hold forever; robust security and monitoring must take the place of off-the-grid technology.
Folmer, at least, recognizes the urgency. And he was wise to invite county elections directors and representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of State and the National Conference of State Legislatures to spell out the challenges.
State leaders must now do the hard work of effectively upgrading Pennsylvania’s elections infrastructure in a way that guards against hacking attempts by Russia and any other interests intent on sowing chaos into state and national elections.
Unfortunately, that may be only half the battle.
Russian hacking efforts were intended as much to meddle with voters’ perceptions as their voting machines.
Campaign finance databases, elected officials and at least one voting software company were targeted last year in efforts to obtain and change voter enrollment data. The goal seems to have been not so much to alter the voting outcomes as to undermine the process itself.
This is where Trump’s defensiveness plays into enemy hands. The president’s focus should be on ferreting out any and all efforts at elections disruption, not on downplaying the probe because he thinks its findings could discredit his election. Leadership in his party must reinforce this message.
Meanwhile, Folmer and like-minded lawmakers of both parties must push for election systems improvements and reform: to the point where bad actors are repelled not only from disrupting the process, but from coming close enough to even plant seeds of doubt.
Partisan differences are stark enough: Voters in Pennsylvania and nationwide need to be confidant that elections results are accurate and valid. Even the appearance of meddling will undermine confidence not just in elections, but in the very foundation of American democracy: Fairly elected representative government.