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In our opinion: Threats to American elections are real. The president should take them seriously

Alex Sanz, Associated Press

Nothing is as important to a democracy as the public’s trust in its election process. Everything else — the conduct of politicians in office, allegations of corruption, the execution of policy objectives — means little if the people lose confidence in their ability to choose leaders or oust scoundrels through the ballot box.

Little wonder, then, that someone like Russian President Vladimir Putin would feel motivated to undermine that confidence in the United States.

U.S. intelligence agencies have been adamant in presenting evidence that Russia used several methods, ranging from stealthy misinformation campaigns on social media to the theft of information from Democratic Party computer servers, in an attempt to influence the 2016 elections. Now they are equally insistent that Russia is attempting to influence the 2020 elections.

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump sees this information as political, casting aspersions on a Feb. 13 briefing intelligence officials gave lawmakers of both parties about the information.

Some, including Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, have questioned why Russia would, as the intelligence officials say, want Trump to win reelection, arguing that the president has been tough on Russia.

But toughness may be irrelevant. Perhaps Putin’s true objective is not to see Trump reelected but to plant that idea in order to undermine faith in U.S. elections. Perhaps he knows he can count on this kind of reaction from Trump, who is more likely to discredit his own intelligence agencies to preserve his reelection chances than to invest many resources in protecting the nation against the attacks.

President Barack Obama was rightly criticized for reacting too late to intelligence of Russian interference in 2016. Now it appears the nation may move too slowly, or not at all, to protect the coming election. Intelligence officials now believe Russia is trying to interfere with this year’s Democratic primaries, as well. Last year’s Mueller report found evidence Russian operatives wanted Bernie Sanders to defeat Hillary Clinton.

Officials said Russia may be using social media this year to coax Americans into repeating false information in ways that skirt new company policies against false political advertising. Their report said Russian forces are using computer servers inside the U.S., making it harder for U.S intelligence to spot them.

Meanwhile, previous reports have revealed evidence of foreign attempts to hack into election-related computers.

The United States has wisely chosen to disburse its presidential elections among thousands of individual counties, each operating with separate rules and systems. In Utah, for example, only a database of voter registrations is potentially vulnerable to internet attacks. Most voters use paper ballots, which are too difficult to manipulate in large numbers. The few computer voting machines in service are not attached to the internet.

While foreign hackers might try to focus on a few key counties in swing states to alter votes, a far easier strategy is to turn voters against each other by exploiting natural biases and general ignorance. In a free society, where speech is unregulated, this could be relatively easy.

The New York Times says intelligence officials now are worried the president might dismantle the office of Shelby Pierson, the nation’s top elections security official. Trump has seemed unusually perturbed that certain Democrats were in the House briefing, and that the information might be used against him in the campaign.

Russia appears to have many tricks up its sleeve. The National Security Agency has warned of infiltrations into Iranian computers, perhaps with the intent of launching attacks on countries that appear to originate in Iran.

These methods are not minor, nor should they be taken for granted. Putin no doubt is counting on America’s political system to turn on itself. The president needs to take these threats seriously.