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EDITORIAL: Careful plan needed to safeguard Chicago elections

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

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

The Chicago Board of Elections badly needs a plan.

In a report released Tuesday, the city inspector general said the elections board won’t be able to guarantee accurate voting results after an attack by hackers or a natural disaster. Moreover, the board — after 2½ years of requests — has shown no signs of developing a formal, written contingency plan to deal with such an attack, Inspector General Joseph Ferguson said.

EDITORIAL

Here’s our vote: Get working on that plan now. No more delays. Chicagoans need to have full confidence that their votes for mayor and alderman will be tallied correctly, even under trying circumstances.

Our election endorsement interviews, which we have been conducting since December in all contested ward and citywide races, have made it clear to us that dozens of credible candidates favor taking Chicago in a wide range of directions. The voters should decide which candidates are looking down the right road, not some election glitch or hack.

The elections board points out that it has a backup system of paper ballots, which means if the electronic counting is compromised, the board can always get an accurate count by hand. That’s a far better situation than in five states where there is no paper backup.

But what if there were irregularities in only a few key precincts, just enough to swing an election but not enough to set off alarm bells? Who would even know that it’s time for a recount?

This isn’t hypothetical. The federal government and election officials say that during the 2016 presidential race Russians hacked their way into the Illinois State Board of Elections voter registration database, where they got a peek at the names, addresses, birth dates and partial Social Security numbers of about 76,000 voters.

One backstop, suggested by University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor and former independent alderman Dick Simpson would be to do exit polls routinely, to see if they line up with official election results. But that would be costly, Simpson said.

The Chicago Board of Elections is overseen to some extent by the Cook County Board, which picks up a large share of the cost of running city elections. The County Board holds hearings and asks the city elections board to explain its processes. But the County Board should go beyond that and ask for an audit of the city elections board, just as it does for all its other agencies.

Reformers have called for merging the Chicago Board of Elections into the Cook County clerk’s office, which runs suburban elections. The Chicago board runs the entire show on elections only every four years, while the county clerk does so in suburban Cook every two years for state races, with suburban races in between.

In 1996, Springfield merged its municipal elections board into the Sangamon County clerk’s office, saving about $1 million a year. Similarly, the DuPage County Board voted two weeks ago to consolidate the county’s election commission into the county clerk’s office. In 2011, the Joint Committee on County-City Collaboration estimated a Cook County merger would save $5 million to $10 million a year.

At a time when we know our election systems are under attack, every election board should be making plans to deal with that. The Chicago Board of Elections should do so as well.

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