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Protect the nation’s voting systems from hackers

Landon Peterson peeks out of the voting booth

Landon Peterson peeks out of the voting booth while his mother Meghan votes March 20, 2012 at Christian Union Church in Metamora, Ill. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Don Emmert

Russian agents tried to hack voter registration systems in more than 20 states in the 2016 election, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Russia also tried to interfere in that election with a public relations and propaganda campaign, according to our nation’s major intelligence agencies. It’s the Trump administration’s complete failure to address either of these real and pressing issues that makes its obsession with fake and discredited claims of widespread voter fraud so frustrating. But it’s what Trump’s voter fraud commission could try to do to prevent future “voter fraud” that is truly frightening.

Tortured by the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 3 million, Trump immediately claimed that millions of immigrants here illegally voted for her, and promised an investigation. True to his word, he created a voter fraud panel, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has a history of promoting the very lonely belief that our system is rife with fraudulent votes, something no credible expert or study supports.

Kobach didn’t attend a national convention this past weekend of state secretaries of state, who administer voting systems, but he was the focus of it thanks to his commission’s request that every state send him voluminous records on 200 million voters. The request asked for names, addresses, birth dates, political affiliations, the last four digits of Social Security numbers, voting statuses, criminal records and more.

Unsurprisingly, officials from both parties reacted with horrified scorn. There’s a long-standing distrust of federal compilations of citizen data. Collecting Social Security data that way could increase the potential of identity theft. And federal collection of voter registration by party was outlawed in the Privacy Act of 1974.

At least 20 states have refused to send any data, and no state has agreed to send all of it. Some of the less sensitive information is publicly available, but Kobach’s commission does not have the good intentions or the proper focus that would justify obtaining it.

A 2012 Pew study found there were about 2 million dead voters on the nation’s rolls and 24 million inaccurate or invalid registrations. It just didn’t find widespread fraud related to these abnormalities. The greater fear is that the Trump administration plans to manipulate this data to argue for increased restrictions on voting and registration that would disenfranchise eligible citizens.

The rolls need improvement, but when the state officials met this past weekend, it was clear their real worry was about safeguarding the security of their systems for the 2018 elections. That’s one place federal help is truly needed in the form of a bipartisan agency that works with states to protect systems from hacking and detect foreign interference.

But that’s not what Trump — with his millions of imaginary illegal voters and Twitter fantasy of an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit” he and Russia’s Vladimir Putin could oversee together — is looking for.

The secretaries of state are right to refuse Kobach’s request — even his own governor in Kansas did so — and instead demand federal attention to the real fears about the integrity of our voting system.