Undermining electoral confidence

Paid volunteers process ballots during the second day of a Durham County vote recount at the Durham County Board of Elections on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.
Paid volunteers process ballots during the second day of a Durham County vote recount at the Durham County Board of Elections on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. newsobserver.com

Probably, it was inevitable.

Swirling leaks and suspicions about Russian involvement in our 2016 elections have enmeshed North Carolina and Durham, where protests by the campaign of defeated incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory dragged on for weeks.

The connection, we should hasten to note, looks pretty tenuous, at least based on what we know so far. Nothing in information reported by The Intercept, an investigative reporting website, suggests that Russian “phishing” efforts, even if successful, would have had any impact on the vote count in Durham . That count, meticulously reexamined by local and state boards of elections, remained virtually unchanged after all that scrutiny.

NC elections officials investigating report of Russian hacking attempts

But the mere fact we are among 21 North Carolina counties whose voting software The Intercept reported to be a target of Russian interference focuses yet more attention on our November election and its aftermath.

The Intercept report was based on a leaked document from the National Security Agency. According to the document, Russian spies electronically infiltrated VR Systems, which provides voting software used around the country. The Russian government emailed more than 100 elections officials, trying in a “phishing” attempt to obtain log-in credentials. In North Carolina, 21 counties, including Durham, use the software to check in voters at their polling places. It is not, state election officials say, involved in counting votes.

The N.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, as it should, is investigating the efforts, whether they specifically targeted any North Carolina officials, and whether they succeeded. “This agency takes any reports of possible interference with our election process very seriously,” Kim Westbrook Strach, the board’s executive director said.

Board spokesman Pat Gannon, echoing comments Durham elections officials made to The Intercept, emphasized the software was used only in the check-in process. “The software that may have been the target of hackers had nothing to do with the tabulation of votes or the voting machines themselves,” Gannon said Tuesday.

The report, though, underscores the importance of the multiple investigations by congressional committees and the Federal Bureau of Investigation into Russian efforts to influence the election’s outcome, undermine confidence in our voting systems, or both. Whether anyone in the Donald Trump campaign or in his White House orbit was in contact with Russians about the election or in its immediate aftermath is an important target of those probes.

Ironically, though, what we do know is that Trump himself has done much to erode confidence in our election system by his insistence, with no evidence, that millions of illegitimate votes were cast. It is dismaying that our president and our most significant foreign adversary are both damaging the credibility of our electoral process.