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Editorial: Are we serious about election reform? Here's how to start

Editorial: Are we serious about election reform? Here's how to start

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On Tuesday, President Donald Trump said he misspoke the previous day about whether he believed the assessment of his intelligence agencies, that Russia meddled with the 2016 elections.

During a press conference on Monday with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, Trump appeared to give credence to Putin's denial that Russia was involved in the election: Trump said that Putin's denial during a meeting between the two leaders had been “extremely strong and powerful."

“My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump said during the press conference, in a reference to Coats, the director of national intelligence. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

On Tuesday, Trump said he should have said "wouldn't" instead of "would," so the sentence he wanted to say was this: "I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be" Russia. Trump said he was trying to make "sort of a double negative," and used the wrong word.

Kids, this is why you should avoid using those double negatives. See: Grammar matters.

By the time you read this editorial, it's likely that Trump will have said something else in an attempt to clarify his statements during Monday's press conference, which was not (how to phrase this gently?) the president's finest hour.

So let's focus instead on something else Trump said Tuesday: He pledged his administration would aggressively try to prevent Russian efforts to interfere in the upcoming midterm elections in November.

If Trump is serious about trying to find ways to make U.S. elections more secure, here's one terrific way to start: He could take a hard look at Oregon's vote-by-mail system. Oregon's system tosses a number of hurdles into the paths of would-be election hackers: The paper ballots we use are mailed to election offices or inserted into secured drop-off boxes. Results are counted on computers that are not connected to the internet. By its very nature, the system leaves a paper trail that can be audited. It adds up to a system that, while not foolproof, offers unique challenges to potential hackers.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon has for years been pushing legislation to pave the way for other states to follow Oregon's lead on paper ballots. Yet the measure hasn't gotten much traction. That's a surprise: You would think state election officials would be interested in at least exploring a system that not only could foil meddlers but also in Oregon typically has led to higher voter turnouts than in other states. Trump's administration could encourage other states to explore vote-by-mail systems.

At the same time, the administration could encourage states to overhaul their election systems, which can be inviting targets for hackers: Some estimates say that across the nation, 10,000 or so local jurisdictions rely on obsolete or imperfectly secured technology.

Now, we're not recommending that the federal government takes on a role overseeing elections; these functions are best left to state and local governments. (And the fact that U.S. elections are decentralized offers another challenge to cyberattackers.) But surely the federal government can encourage states to improve their election systems and to help pay for improvements. 

Finally, Trump should resist the temptation to renew accusations he's levied in the past about how widespread voter fraud cost him the popular vote in the 2016 election. There's a reason why the presidential commission he convened on this issue crashed and burned: There's just no evidence of the kind of widespread voter fraud that would have been required to steal the popular-vote victory away from Trump. Besides, as the president sometimes seems to forget, he won the election where it matters, in the Electoral College.

But revisiting this phony voter-fraud issue now would run the very real risk that we won't focus on an issue that's very real: The prospect that the meddling of  2016 was just a warmup for 2018. (mm)


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