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Beware of hacking, but also voter disruptions on Election Day

FBI director James Comey at FBI headquarters in

FBI director James Comey at FBI headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, July 5, 2016. Credit: AP

FBI Director James Comey told members of Congress on Wednesday that “some bad actors have been poking around” a few of the nation’s voter registration databases. His warnings about hackers suggest we need to be conscientious, but there’s no call for panic.

Comey was being grilled on Capitol Hill because of reports of hacking into voter databases in Illinois and Arizona. However, curiosity and fear also have been stirred by suggestions from GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump that if he loses, it will be because the election was rigged.

When talk of tampering arises, many picture the kind of hack that involves changing voting results to make it look like a presidential candidate won 140 million to zip. But the fact that voting is run by counties and states, and that results are tallied by precinct, makes that pretty much impossible. And, Comey said, the fact that practically no voting machines are connected to the internet makes them less vulnerable to attack. Even a local hacking could likely be corrected eventually, because most voting machines still have a paper backup.

What Comey and other experts do worry about is disruption, and potentially, local computer or voter security hacks in which the registration rolls or function of a precinct are disturbed. Imagine a bogus text alert, for example, telling voters in a highly Democratic or Republican area that their polling places are closed. So while local and state officials need to be careful about computer security, voters and local police also need to be canny on Election Day.

It’s a lot easier to mess with people’s heads and keep them from voting than it is to mess with voting results. — The editorial board