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Editorial: Ballot safety is at risk
Even if fraudulent votes are rare, security issues are real, worthy of fed panels focus

If it wasn’t bad enough America’s politics and government are lumbering the highway on four bald tires, the act of voting itself is now under fresh scrutiny.

From voting fraud real and imagined to the exposure and attempted hacking of voter databases, Americans have valid reason to be concerned their votes and personal information may not be safe.

Of course, the counting of ballots hasn’t always been a pristine endeavor. U.S. history is peppered with stories of election improprieties: the mysterious box of ballots from Lyndon Johnson’s Texas Senate campaign; tales of dead Chicago voters casting ballots for Richard Daley and John Kennedy; and of course, the infamous “hanging chads” in Florida from the Keystone Cops election of 2000.

But those were good old-fashioned paper ballots, which were at least organic and verifiable. Securing them wasn’t guaranteed, but their access was limited to those who could get their hands on them. Now in the age of electronic voting, the possibilities for hijinks are much greater in a cyber Westworld of server-based information can be hacked from anywhere by someone who knows how to pick the locks.

So far, the biggest concerns are over accessing voter data rather than manipulating actual votes. But with each election, the potential for doing so and fear it could happen grows greater.

Last year, then-candidate Donald Trump claimed the November presidential election could be stolen by his opponent in a vast conspiracy. Turns out he won anyway, and while the charges themselves weren’t based on hard facts, there were reports of bogus registration efforts and similar missteps worth a closer look.

This doesn’t include, by the way, accusations of Russian tampering with emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign. Disturbing as that might be, that scandal involves hackers accessing private server information and exposing it to the public, not cracking into election offices to manipulate votes (though there were reports they tried). Though many accuse the Russians of “influencing” the election, it’s a reach to think they changed very many minds with such revelations. And they clearly had no access to actual votes, a much greater concern in the big picture.

But that’s not to say the nation’s myriad election offices and databases are safe. That came to light recently in Georgia when it was learned the personal information of every Georgia voter — yes, all of us — was exposed. That information was stored on a server at Kennesaw State University and the back door was left open through a mistake by a third-party contractor.

When news of the exposure went public, Secretary of State Brian Kemp decided to move the state’s voter data center out of KSU and back under his office’s control, though what damage has already been done is uncertain. So far, the secretary of state’s office has budgeted $815,000 for the move. Spending even twice that would be worth the price of keeping the personal information of 6.7 million Georgia voters out of the wrong hands.

Meanwhile, the White House has launched a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to look into voting fraud allegations from the last election. In the process, it sought personal information from every state’s voting rolls; officials in 14 states plus the District of Columbia resisted (Georgia was not among them). The probe led to a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. Until the case is decided, the panel is holding off on data requests.

Opposition to these inquiries wasn’t partisan, with many of those states managed by Republican governors and election officials. Mississippi’s Republican secretary of state invited the commission to “jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

It’s unsure what the commission will find when its efforts go forward. There are reports of cases where votes were not cast legally or counted properly. The Heritage Foundation, a libertarian/conservative Washington think tank, recently released information from its own investigation of voter fraud documenting 1,071 such cases in 47 states, more than 900 of them leading to criminal convictions.

There’s no denying this is a problem, and solutions are worth pursuing. More than a thousand cases nationwide is still too many, and a few votes can make a difference in some elections. But it hardly paints a picture of extensive fraud out of the 100 million votes cast in a national election. To date, there’s no indication these random glitches are common enough to indicate a massive conspiracy to swing votes.

Yet when fraudulent efforts involve computer hacking with illegal intent, the danger is much greater. As cyber crooks become more prevalent and more sophisticated in their methods, they will find new ways around firewalls and security measures, leaving government agencies scrambling to stay a step ahead.

In a nation of 50 states, thousands of counties and hundreds of thousands of voting precincts, information rests in a mishmash of machines old and new with no standard process for creating, securing and tabulating ballots. While that’s OK for local elections, there need to be more unified safeguards nationwide for federal elections to guarantee their validity. When we elect a president and congressional leaders who affect us all, votes need to be cast the same in Gainesville as they are in Natchez, Mississippi, Bar Harbor, Maine, and Eureka, California.

Ultimately this should be the main focus of the White House commission. If it can help smooth out discrepancies from state to state to help election officials lock down their data effectively, its work might be more fruitful than chasing down cases of random fraud.

There’s little point in pursing a thousand petty criminals when there’s an Al Capone out there with a laptop capable of doing much more harm.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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