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EDITORIAL: Pull out all stops to protect our vote from foreign meddling

The polling station at Columbia College on election day, March 20, 2018. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Midterm elections are less than 100 days away, yet President Donald Trump and Congress have largely ignored the threat of outsider meddling — by Russia or anybody else.

Here in Illinois, and county by county, election officials should be working overtime to ensure the upcoming vote is safe from hackers.

“Our democracy is in the crosshairs,” U.S. Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen warned this week. That message should hit home particularly hard in Illinois, where Russians hacked into state voting records two years ago and purloined voter information.


Unfortunately, America is led by a president who only grudgingly acknowledges that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and is up to its tricks again. And Congress pathetically refuses to act on its own. So we can’t wait on Washington for a credible effort to upgrade voting systems across the country.

On Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked a $250 million proposal for extra election security.

Voters in Cook County on Nov. 6 will be using aging voting machines purchased about 15 years ago, which was a time when no one foresaw the likelihood of a foreign power trying to tilt American elections. Some machines still employ an antiquated eight-track tape technology.

Red tape has delayed the purchase of $30 million worth of new voting machines in Cook County. That process needs to pick up speed so that the new machines are in place before next year’s local elections.

Not only do the new voting machines have more anti-hacking protections, they also can capture an image of a paper ballot the moment a voter feeds it into a machine. Should anything then happen to that paper form, which is the official ballot, a record will exist of what it looked like.

The new machines also are expected to make it much easier to cross-check paper ballots with electronic vote totals to detect fraud.

As the system works now, auditing the paper rolls from the current touch-screen equipment is extremely time-consuming, so only 5 percent of paper ballots are automatically compared with electronic results. With the new machines, a much larger percentage of ballots can be cross-checked, providing far greater assurance that votes are being tallied correctly.

Already this year, Microsoft has caught hackers targeting three congressional candidates in the Nov. 6 elections.

Meanwhile, Facebook announced this week that social media attempts to influence the vote are back. Facebook removed dozens of pages and accounts that appeared to be part of a complex disinformation effort. The company could not tie the scam directly to the Russians, but it was consistent with what has been seen from Russian troll farms in the past.

An accurate vote count is the bedrock of democracy. Federal and local officials must build a wall around the ballot.

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