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Election security should be a shared priority

If America is to remain America, we need to make sure our voting is what voters believe it to be, and not a sham controlled by cheaters.

As politics has become more of a high-stakes game, its battlefields these days swirl around its own core mechanism — elections.

U.S. diplomats have testified in the current impeachment inquiry that President Donald Trump pressured Ukraine to help weaken a 2020 political opponent, using hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military aid as leverage. This raises the question of where the boundary of politics lies. Trump and his defenders say he did nothing illegal, but the Constitution is not clear about that. Our nation’s founders clearly feared foreign nations becoming involved in domestic politics, but a certain amount of that has always been with us. At what point is it out of bounds? It is a slippery slope, however, and if we aren’t careful, we will have our political parties actively allying themselves with foreign powers. There is reason to fear Trump is already engaging in that.

In defending the president, Republicans fall back on the centrality of elections: They say Democrats are just trying to overturn the 2016 vote.

Perhaps not directly, though. It seems unlikely that the Senate will remove Trump from office, even if the House impeaches him, so maybe Democrats are mainly doing this as a demonstration — to show next year’s voters that Trump needs to go.

It’s all about winning the next election.

This compulsive campaigning is exhausting to ordinary Americans, who would love to see less partisan warfare and more focus on solving common problems. But it’s also kind of reassuring that the real power in this country, the kind would-be leaders crave, derives from the people’s free choice.

Yet if elections are corrupted, they no longer drive real democracy.

Serious threats to the fairness of our elections have been widely reported by our federal intelligence agencies, and some county election boards have reported attempted hacks. The Mueller investigation presented alarming proof that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to sway voters toward Trump — although it didn’t find enough evidence to prove Trump participated in that.

Since then, however, Congress has done nothing to make our elections more secure.

Agents of the Russian government mostly focused on propaganda, through social media and other internet channels, as they previously did to interfere with elections in Baltic countries. That means people need to be extra careful to scrutinize what they read and to think for themselves. Simply following the lead of your chosen political party on every issue makes you much easier to manipulate. Be your own person. Pick and choose from the cafeteria of ideas.

But while simple strength of character can go a long way toward blunting propaganda (both domestic and foreign), individuals can’t do much to stop someone from hacking into our election computer system and changing the numbers. And that kind of outright cheating is probably coming more than in the past.

If our political party leaders are to agree on anything, we would think it would be that the game be played without foreign interference. So far, though, they haven’t done much about it.

After the 2000 presidential election’s Florida recount debacle, Congress members of both parties passed the Help America Vote Act, which upgraded voting machines so our democracy wouldn’t be undermined by bad, old technology. We mourned losing the reliable and easy-to-use turquoise lever-action voting machines, but we were glad other places no longer had to rely on hole-punching clunkers.

Likewise, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Congress acted in a bipartisan manner to increase transportation security. This involved sacrifices, such as ease of crossing the U.S.-Canada border — which did long-term damage to northern New York’s economy. But it also prevented terrorist attacks.

Now, as foreign threats loom again, Democrats and Republicans need to set aside their preoccupations and realize election security is in their and the nation’s best interest.

One way to do it is for the federal government to give money to states, to give to local boards of election, to shore up security measures. A House budget bill would put $600 million toward this, and a Senate bill would commit $250 million, according to The Hill newspaper. We hope they agree soon on a sufficient amount. Anyone who tries to block it, we have to question his or her motives. After all, foreign adversaries don’t so much want to help one party win as they want the U.S. weakened by political division.

Meanwhile, our state legislature and governor have made numerous election changes this year, nearly all of them are focused on increasing voter turnout. This is good, in general, but security should be a priority as well.

We are fine if some security measures protect against what is typically called “voter fraud”: people voting under other people’s names or voting when they are not eligible. That, obviously, is cheating and wrong. But it has always been with us, and however many people might commit such fraud is a drop in the bucket compared to what one computer hacker could do.

Cyber-attacks are perhaps the biggest current and future threat to our democracy. Foreign nations are unlikely to risk tangling with Earth’s biggest military, but if they can manipulate the U.S. with cyber-attacks and the U.S. ignores it, that’s what they’ll do.

We, as a people, need our leaders not to ignore it.

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