Editorial: Voting hacks are a clear and present danger

Tribune News Service

There’s a special election in Georgia Tuesday. Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, faces Karen Handel, a Republican, for a vacant U.S. House seat.

It’s apparently the most expensive House race in American history — roughly $50 million and counting. To the beleaguered voters in the district, bombarded with TV ads and mailers, we extend our sympathy.

At the same time, the Georgia race proves once again that elections matter. The choices made in the suburban Atlanta district will influence health care policy, taxes, foreign affairs, infrastructure spending and more.

Voting is the most important thing we do as Americans.

And it’s under assault. Last week, Bloomberg reported Russian hackers may have tried to disrupt voter registration systems in 39 states in 2016. Monday, a company called UpGuard claimed it found the personal information of nearly 200 million voters by discovering an unprotected, cloud-based database.

The political world appears astonishingly exposed to digital interference that could devastate our democracy, regardless of the perpetrator.

“It’s now clear U.S. voting is hackable,” Vox headlined last week.

For years, election experts have said hacking results on Election Day would be extremely difficult.

That turns out to be small comfort. Election officials now worry malevolent actors could hack into voter registration databases and change voter information or delete voter names entirely.

Hackers might lock up tablet-based registration systems or delay ballot counting. And a successful hack in just a few states could cause Americans to lose faith in election outcomes.

This isn’t a theoretical problem. Already experts are expressing concerns about Tuesday’s special election in Georgia; if it’s close, watch for allegations of impropriety to surface.

Voter system vulnerability in our area remains unclear. Missouri was not one of the 39 states attacked last year, according to the secretary of state’s office; the Kansas office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

But even the chance of digital interference in election systems is unacceptable. While partisans chase virtually nonexistent voter fraud, the chance of actual fraud on a massive scale remains very real and unaddressed.

It has been 15 years since Congress approved the Help America Vote Act, designed to modernize and secure election systems in the wake of the Bush-Gore debacle. It cost about $3.5 billion, a rounding error in the federal budget.

It’s time for a new federal effort to secure the ballot. Elections matter, and secure elections matter more than anything else.