In­tegrity at the bal­lot

Our view: U.S. vot­ing sys­tem has vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, but that risk is man­age­able, not cause to re­ject the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion re­sults out of hand

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

One of the last ques­tions asked of Hil­lary Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump at Mon­day night’s de­bate at Hof­s­tra Univer­sity de­serves to be re­vis­ited. Mod­er­a­tor Lester Holt asked both can­di­dates whether, if they lost the elec­tion, they ac­cept the re­sults as the “will of the vot­ers.” Both in­di­cated that yes, they would (al­though Mr. Trump agreed to sup­port Ms. Clin­ton so re­luc­tantly — it re­quired a fol­low-up ques­tion from Mr. Holt — that re­porters felt com­pelled to con­firm his po­si­tion af­ter­ward).

In any other pres­i­den­tial race, a ques­tion about rec­og­niz­ing the will of the vot­ers would be re­garded as a soft­ball — the an­swer so ob­vi­ous that surely no de­bate prep was needed. Af­ter all, what kind of pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee seeks to dele­git­imize the es­sen­tial process that sus­tains the great­est democ­racy on earth? But these are not or­di­nary times.

The na­tion’s vot­ing sys­tem faces a very real threat from com­puter hack­ers. That much was made clear with the breach of a voter in­for­ma­tion data­base in Illi­nois this sum­mer. Elec­tion boards across the coun­try — in­clud­ing Mary­land’s — were put on alert by fed­eral au­thor­i­ties out of con­cern for po­ten­tial vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

Such a prob­lem de­serves to be taken se­ri­ously, yet the big­gest threat of all may be one not so eas­ily ad­dressed in the fi­nal six weeks of the cam­paign: What if the pub­lic loses con­fi­dence in the vot­ing sys­tem and judges it so un­re­li­able that vot­ers do not be­lieve the win­ner of the elec­tion is nec­es­sar­ily the win­ner at all?

Ex­perts in cy­ber­se­cu­rity worry that this sow­ing of doubt within the elec­torate is far more wor­ri­some than any­thing a hacker could achieve. Af­ter all, there are sig­nif­i­cant pro­tec­tions al­ready in place — from dis­con­nect­ing vot­ing ma­chines from the in­ter­net to ed­u­cat­ing elec­tion of­fi­cials on how to spot a po­ten­tial breach of the reg­is­tra­tion or ab­sen­tee bal­lot data­bases. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by the Brennan Cen­ter for Jus­tice, about 80 per­cent of votes cast on Nov. 8 will leave be­hind a “pa­per trail,” mean­ing they can be dou­ble-checked with­out use of any elec­tronic tech­nol­ogy.

Some of these se­cu­rity en­hance­ments stem from the last truly close pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the 2000 con­test be­tween Al Gore and Ge­orge W. Bush that came down to a dis­pute over Florida and its “hang­ing chads.” The sub­se­quent re­forms in­clude the use of bal­lot scan­ner sys­tems that main­tain a pa­per trail, fed­eral cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of equip­ment and a dis­con­nect from the in­ter­net (even now, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of vot­ing isn’t on­line).

Yet there are also added vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties: The elec­tion may be close, and the is­sue of cy­ber­se­cu­rity is sen­sa­tion­al­ized given that Repub­li­cans for years have been at­tack­ing the in­tegrity of the U.S. vot­ing sys­tem with red her­ring claims about the need for photo iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards — sup­pos­edly to counter in-per­son bal­lot fraud, which is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent, but ac­tu­ally in or­der to quash turnout by mi­nori­ties and oth­ers who tend to vote Demo­cratic. It’s also un­help­ful that Mr. Trump’s anti-es­tab- The new pa­per bal­lots Mary­land is us­ing this year are a safe­guard against fraud. lish­ment cam­paign has been stok­ing fears of a “stolen” elec­tion for months. Some days, it’s go­ing to be stolen by party lead­ers rig­ging the nom­i­nat­ing process, and more re­cently the fin­ger of blame has landed on the lack of ID laws (lead­ing Mr. Trump to ask his sup­port­ers to vol­un­teer as an army of poll watch­ers in places like Philadel­phia with its large African-Amer­i­can vote).

In tes­ti­mony heard Tues­day by the House sub­com­mit­tee that over­sees in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, it was clear that there’s much more the na­tion needs to do to pro­tect elec­tion in­tegrity — par­tic­u­larly by fo­cus­ing on real prob­lems like re­plac­ing out­dated equip­ment that might be ma­nip­u­lated re­motely (in the 14 states that went pa­per­less, for ex­am­ple) and not on greatly over­stated prob­lems like peo­ple show­ing up at the polls claim­ing to be some­one they are not.

Here’s the real night­mare sce­nario: What if there is ev­i­dence of hack­ing in a swing state where there is no pa­per trail? Or what hap­pens if thou­sands of peo­ple in those states have been wrongly purged from the vot­ing rolls and can’t cast a bal­lot at all? Whatif all that hack­ing is traced to for­eign agents? Again, that’s wor­ri­some, but it’s ex­actly what au­thor­i­ties are now work­ing to pre­vent.

In the long term, there are nu­mer­ous re­forms needed, from re­plac­ing old ma­chines to end­ing the prac­tice of vot­ing over the in­ter­net. In the near-term, elec­tion boards must do all they can to rec­og­nize and ad­dress ex­ist­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties — in­clud­ing au­dit­ing the re­sults. Still, it would be wise for the can­di­dates and their sup­port­ers not to over­state or sen­sa­tion­al­ize the prob­lem and cer­tainly not to goad sup­port­ers into re­ject­ing the out­come be­fore it’s even known. Mr. Trump and Ms. Clin­ton set a rea­son­able stan­dard at the de­bate when the is­sue was raised. Now they need to stick to that stan­dard and not ca­su­ally raise un­due alarm over the in­tegrity of what re­mains — at least un­til proven oth­er­wise — a re­spectable elec­tion process.

MATT BUT­TON /BAL­TI­MORE SUN ME­DIA GROUP

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