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EDITORIAL: Take a stand for vigilance and untainted elections

No one should try to gain political advantage by looking the other way when hostile powers try to undermine American independence by tilting our electoral playing field.

Tanya Moutzalias/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP

Americans have fought long and hard to keep a government that is installed by free and fair elections. But democracy can’t work if hostile foreign powers are permitted to put heavy thumbs on the scales.

That’s why we have laws banning presidential candidates from taking anything of value from foreign interests. And it’s why so many people were shocked when President Donald Trump on Wednesday indicated he would gladly accept negative information about a campaign opponent from a hostile foreign power.

At a time when advancing technology threatens to make election interference even worse, election officials, voters and politicians in both parties should insist we do all to protect the integrity of the ballot.

Trump, who has a sworn duty to protect the nation, unfortunately does not agree.

“It’s not an interference,” Trump told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos as they discussed what he would do about a potential offer by a foreign power of campaign dirt about a campaign opponent. “They have information, I think I’d take it.”

Trump also said FBI Director Christopher A. Wray was “wrong” to say the FBI needs to know about such offers.

Federal Election Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub, a George W. Bush appointee, said in a statement on Thursday that what Trump said he was willing to do is clearly against the law. “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” Weintraub stated.

On Friday, Trump backtracked somewhat, saying he would “absolutely” report an offer of foreign help, but his history of not sticking to his word inspires little reassurance.

Even as Trump was holding forth in his interview, technology experts were warning us that advances in artificial intelligence will make it easier than ever for those with their own agendas to tilt elections with bogus information. In this case, they were talking about new, widely available technology that will make it easy to disseminate videos that make it appear political candidates are saying things that, in fact, they never said. It’s easy to see how that could sway voters who don’t suspect they are looking at artfully doctored videos.

And that is just one threat to the 2020 election, which follows a 2016 campaign in which Russia hacked a major American political party and did its best to misinform voters via social media. Instead of brushing off the risk, everyone from Trump on down should be intensifying their vigilance.

“What you want is the entire federal bureaucracy united in dealing with [foreign election interference] because the challenges are so difficult,” former Cook County Clerk David Orr, who ran suburban elections, said on Friday.

The key to protecting elections is to take protective measures ahead of time, Orr added.

“If we are unsuccessful, it can really mess up an election,” he said.

The FBI has been trying to do its part. For nearly two years, a special office within the agency has been working to block the type of interference that Russia engaged in during the 2016 campaign. But Trump’s comments, along with Attorney General William Barr’s suspicious “review” of the Robert Mueller-led Russia investigation, can only demoralize everyone who is working in that office, even as Trump lays down a virtual welcome mat for foreign election interference in 2020.

Unfortunately, Congress isn’t acting. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky., refuses to even consider election integrity legislation passed in the House, which is weighing additional legislation. Also going nowhere is a Senate bill that would simply require presidential campaigns to notify the Federal Election Commission if a foreign government offers to help out in some way.

That’s alarming. No one should try to gain political advantage by looking the other way when hostile powers try to undermine American independence by tilting our electoral playing field.

Americans need to come together in support of our election integrity.

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