- - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Someone has been hacking into voter registration databases and the FBI is on it. After James Comey’s blowing off the evidence collected by his agents of Hillary Clinton’s email crimes, however, there’s considerable cause to be afraid, very afraid, for the legitimacy of the November elections. With the push to make elections more convenient at the price of security, penetration by outside actors has become nearly inevitable. That means one key part of the election process, the actual casting of votes, should be kept offline. If marked electronic ballots can be hacked, Americans can’t help wondering whether an election can be stolen. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The FBI has discovered evidence that foreign hackers recently gained access to the election records of two states, and the bureau warned that election officials everywhere should improve their cybersecurity. The warning doesn’t name the states, but evidence of outside penetration of election systems has turned up in Illinois and Arizona. It’s not exactly confirmation of Donald Trump’s campaign catcall that the election is about to be rigged, but it raises the question of whether the great American tradition of clean elections is about to vanish.

The threat is so great that the Department of Homeland Security is considering taking over election security everywhere. “We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process, is critical infrastructure like the financial sector, like the power grid,” says Secretary Jeh Johnson. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has written to the director of the FBI asking him to investigate whether Russian agents have been tampering with election processes. With early voting beginning in less than a month, plugging back doors vulnerable to Russia and other hackers may be too little, too late.

Cyberthieves have already made an impact. Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks posted 20,000 emails and documents pilfered from Democratic National Committee servers just in time to reveal that the party convention in Philadelphia was “pre-choreographed” to dispose of Bernard Sanders and crown Hillary Clinton. The deceit of Debbie Wasserman Schultz was uncovered and she was forced to resign as party chairman. Newly posted WikiLeaks messages show her replacement, Donna Brazile, may have unfairly collaborated with Hillary, too. Mr. Assange says he is readying other items concerning Hillary which will have “significant” relevance to her campaign.

Online election services can be a useful means of registering voters and providing information about candidates and polling places, and particularly for U.S. soldiers stationed overseas. But actual voting over the internet presents privacy and security problems. All states provide the right to a secret ballot, but according to a study by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, that right is often null when the ballot is submitted and tallied online. Wherever possible, voters should obtain a paper ballot and take a pencil or pen to it rather than rely on a vulnerable electronic system plugged into an unsecured internet. Voting machines are not infallible. The late Gov. Earl Long of Louisiana, where fraud is not unknown, once boasted that he could “make a voting machine play ‘Home on the Range’.”

Old-fashioned though it may be, a paper ballot can’t be altered by a few keystrokes. Until ballot watchdogs can do more than bark at electronic chicanery, Americans are well advised to take precautions to ensure their ballots are not electronically folded, spindled or mutilated.

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