Until the 2000 presidential election, few people would have ever imagined that the system of taking and counting ballots could be tampered with in the United States.
After all, this is the world’s best democracy. At least that’s the image that we market to the rest of the world. But Florida, with its hanging chads, swinging chads and ballots disappearing altogether, proved that our great system of voting can be compromised.
Computers and the internet, which are supposed to make our lives easier, more open, accountable and more convenient, also unlock and swing open broad doors of vulnerability to people worldwide who will do unscrupulous and nefarious things. The hacking of voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona should come as no surprise.
What is astonishing is that the FBI alerted Arizona officials in June that Russian hackers were thought to be responsible. But officials didn’t go public with the information until this week. In Illinois, officials learned in July of a hack of the state voter registration system.
That breach led the Illinois state election board to shut down the voter registration system for a week. In Arizona, the secretary of state’s office shutdown part of its website after the FBI discovered a potential threat to the state voter registration system.
Shawn Kieffer, the Republican election director with the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners, said Tuesday that the election system hacks were a hot topic at the Election Center Conference this month in Philadelphia. A lot of discussion was devoted to cybersecurity.
But the public also should have been alerted a lot sooner than now so other states could take the needed precautions to make their voting systems more secure. The FBI this month alerted states to be more vigilant of hacks of their computers governing elections.
Elections are a vital part of any democracy, but so are the results. Reporting the outcome in a timely fashion with an accurate, verifiable count ensures that people will trust the system and the winners in elections.
A free society banks on the election system being accountable and functioning properly. Any compromise casts doubt on the outcome, the leadership put in place and the government itself.
Our free society — grounded in constitutional ideals — suddenly becomes suspect, and the people’s trust is shaken. Once it’s lost, regaining that trust is a difficult process.
State and local election officials throughout the country are now trying to ensure that their systems are secure and not vulnerable to hackers — foreign or domestic.
The hacks follow Democratic Party organizations suffering breaches of their computer systems. U.S. authorities also have indicated that Russia may be responsible.
Tampering with the U.S. election system and political parties would far surpass any Cold War low between the two countries. Aside from going back to paper registrations and ballots, file cabinets, and hand counting, state and local election offices need to redouble all efforts to ensure that their computer systems are secure.
It’s the only way they can make sure people completely trust the outcome of the Nov. 8 election and those that will follow.
Lewis Diuguid is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.