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Word that Pennsylvania was among 21 states whose voting systems were targeted by Russian hackers in 2016 brings home the vital importance of securing the sanctity of America’s most cherished institution —  free and honest elections.

That central tenet is too often lost amid the political distractions that have befogged the issue.

President Donald Trump, under the apparent belief that Russian meddling somehow undermines his legitimacy, has done everything in his power to throw suspicion upon the ongoing investigation.

This does a disservice to the American people. As Pennsylvania’s top elections official explained this week, the threat is real and the commonwealth’s voters are in the crosshairs.

Secretary of State Pedro Cortes was briefed last week by Homeland Security officials about Russian efforts to penetrate the state’s elections systems. While the department kept specifics scant, Cortes has his theories.

He believes hackers might have been looking to alter voter registration records just before Election Day last year, according to a report by the Associated Press.

More: Russians targeted Pennsylvania election system, state told

Nothing as sinister as targeting an individual candidate, or party, would be necessary under such a scenario. Simply sow enough confusion into the process by virtue of scores of voters suddenly finding they are not properly registered to cast a ballot at their usual polling place and throw suspicion onto the entire process.

That’s a bipartisan problem. Never mind who gets the most votes. If an election is thrown into legitimate doubt, everyone loses.

It is reassuring that, thanks to robust protections, Pennsylvania’s elections system was not compromised. Of the other 20 targeted states, only Illinois reported that hackers had succeeded in breaking into voting systems, the AP reported.

But voters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere across the nation haven’t seen the last of such efforts. That’s why it’s imperative that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling proceed unimpeded. Only when we know the extent of the hacking campaign can we take steps to counter similar, future efforts.

The president’s insistence on making the investigation all about him may be characteristic – and characteristically counterproductive — but the bigger issue is protecting one of the foundational principles of a free democracy.

More: Trump’s suggestion of working with Russia on cybersecurity is widely ridiculed

If it turns out Trump and/or his campaign had a hand in coordinating such meddling, all the more reason for the probe to continue full speed ahead. But for the sake of this discussion, it is securing the nation’s elections systems that takes utmost precedence.

Meantime, federal officials and the administration must do more to assist in shoring up individual states’ protections — especially those states, like Pennsylvania, that have already come under attack.

Cortes is correct to criticize Homeland Security for taking too long to report the hacking attempt. Pennsylvania’s secretary of state and his counterparts across the country need to know what they’re up against.

And they need sufficient support to mount a legitimate defense. That means additional intelligence on a timely manner, and any financial resources necessary to erect insurmountable barriers. No excuses; no delays.

As Cortes correctly stated: “This is one problem that is not going to go away.”

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