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053019-adh-nws-Ron Wyden02-my (copy)

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.

We had a chance this week to visit with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who brought us up to date on the progress of his legislation to require states to use paper ballots and to employ audits to ensure that hackers have not meddled with election results.

The good news is that the bill, which he has dubbed the Protecting American Votes and Elections Acts (the acronym is PAVE, because no congressional action is complete without a snazzy acronym), now has attracted 14 co-sponsors. 

The bad news is that not one Republican has signed onto the bill proposed by Wyden, a Democrat. And with Republicans still in control of the Senate, that means the bill likely will remain stalled — especially since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been a staunch opponent of this sort of election reform, Wyden said.

But Wyden is nothing if not persistent — and he made the case in a session with the Democrat-Herald's editorial board that the need for the election reforms called for in his bill has never been more urgent. Wyden sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and although he can't reveal classified details, he said what he's seen there has him convinced that the election meddling we endured in the 2016 election was nothing compared to what we could see in 2020. "I think we're looking in 2020 at something that would make 2016 look like small potatoes," he said. He noted as well that the threats to the security of U.S. election systems aren't limited to just Russian efforts.

He said the next few months are a critical time to harden election defenses against anyone who might be tempted to see what sort of damage they could inflict. Realistically, he said, if the work isn't done by October, there won't be enough time to get ready for November 2020, which (shockingly) is less than a year and a half away.

According to Wyden, paper ballots and statistically rigorous audits are two steps election experts say are necessary to give voters confidence that election results have not been changed by foreign governments or other hackers. And if the 2020 elections are as close as we suspect they will be, we'll need every ounce of that confidence.

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The senator said election clerks around the nation have told him that they like the idea of the audits, but worry about the associated costs. That's why Wyden said the bill includes money to help pay for those audit costs. 

The bill is a logical extension of Wyden's longtime efforts to expand Oregon's vote-by-mail system to the entire nation. (And it carries a little bit of the spirit of former Linn County Clerk Del Riley, the father of Oregon's vote-by-mail system.) Frankly, we've been surprised that more states have not followed Oregon's example to start using paper ballots, which offer at least two distinct advantages: First, by their nature, they're virtually impossible to hack. And they leave behind a paper trail that allows relatively easy auditing.

Still, expect Wyden's bill to attract the same kind of criticisms that it has in the past: Republicans have said similar measures overstepped congressional authority and violated states' rights. 

But Wyden's bill does not strip away state control over their elections; instead, it shows the way for states to adopt voting systems that have a fighting chance at turning away hackers. 

"I'm not underestimating how hard this is going to be," Wyden said, noting that among the measure's foes are companies that manufacture voting machines. But he said he still believes he can win over opponents, especially if he's successful in casting the issue as a national security matter. There's merit in that argument: You certainly can make the case that any attempt to shake confidence in our voting system could jeopardize national security. Whether that argument helps to get these voting reforms over the hump remains to be seen. (mm)

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