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Baas: U.S. government must improve election system to regain voter confidence

Jared Baas, Columnist

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The 2016 election was a period full of controversy, emotion and nightmarish reporting. For some, the election meant losing many of the American values they held dearest. Others saw it as an opportunity for the U.S. economy to prosper and unemployment to decrease under the watch of President Donald Trump. But regardless of one’s opinions about the results, there remains the fact of interference and technical issues throughout the national election, and this is a problem that must be addressed by the chief election officials for their respective states.

One of the most troubling dilemmas to hit U.S. voting systems affected the Illinois Voter Registration System Database in summer 2016. The IVRS is a data storage system containing hordes of sensitive voting information that has the potential to be used maliciously if accessed by the wrong person.

While the attack originally went unnoticed, it was brought to attention after server logs noted a huge spike in the processor usage. After careful review from the State Board of Elections IT staff, it was discovered that hackers with foreign IP addresses had been accessing data on their survey for weeks. While later investigations concluded that no data was altered, the severity of the issue still remains.

How can voters be confident in putting personal information into an external server that can easily be penetrated by hackers? I consider it extremely lucky that these cyber criminals didn’t do worse, because I believe they have the potential to do so. It is evident that we need to change the way our sensitive voting information is stored to allow for a safer system of making our voices heard.

One solution may be to keep all voting information local instead of placing it on an external server. This would mean that when you go to a physical location to vote, the information you input would be held in a database that is not connected to an external network, keeping it safer from hackers looking to target the whole system.

The sad reality is that Illinois, like many states, has attempted to garner money to improve election security. The Help America Vote Act created regulations for voting equipment, but did not secure any additional funds to improve the systems. Instead of complaining about the safety of voting, we should vote in measures to allow for funding to improve security surrounding elections.

It is also important to mention the indirect interference with elections as well. While many different types of data were accessed by foreign parties during the 2016 election, there has never been conclusive evidence that any votes themselves were actually altered by an outside source. Just because the physical vote itself was not altered, however, does not mean that voters weren’t impacted.

Facebook published an update on their news blog in September 2017 that described their investigation into possibly malicious ads that were posted between June 2015 and May 2017. The report states that while no messages that directly supported any party, candidate or vote were published, they did include various “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum” that were targeted to specific geographic areas. This means people in certain swing states or on the fence areas were singled out for greater advertising on particular topics, attempting to sway their opinion without them even knowing.

Many of these ads were made by sham accounts that clearly violated Facebook policies. Yet, they were able to operate for nearly two years, silently pushing blind users into their corrupt stables. This is my second call to arms: While Facebook claimed they are working to resolve the issue, as American voters, it’s also our job to be an informed electorate. We have to understand where reputable information originates, and that while social media may be a innovative platform for sharing opinions, it also contains many biases that may not always be apparent.

Looking toward the 2020 election season, the U.S. government needs to listen to the voice of the people and improve its security to protect the election system against fraud or hacking. The democratic system relies on each citizen freely expressing their vote in a safe and efficient manner — but this is not the structure in which today’s system operates. We need to be confident that, when we go to the polls, our votes are being fairly received and our voices are being heard.

It’s unacceptable that the American people should avoid the polls out of fear or distrust that their personal information could be illegally accessed or votes cancelled out by outside influences. Once we rebuild the voting system, we can stop wasting time blaming it for election results and start focusing on the actual issues that affect our country today.

Jared Baas is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at jaredbaas2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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