In reporting yesterday from NBC News, head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, Jeanette Manfra, said, “We saw a targeting of 21 states and an exceptionally small number of them were successfully penetrated.” This comes five months after Homeland Security notified those 21 states that Russian government hackers had been targeting them, and a full 17 months after NBC News reported attempted hacking. So far, only Illinois has confirmed that the hackers had been able to gain access to its systems.
In short, there’s nothing all that new in the story from NBC News, but this is now a story that has had legs in three calendar years. It’s been a low drone, a largely ignored subtext to the other shady aspects of Russia’s activities during the last election. With everyone seemingly preoccupied with Russian social media bots and fake news accounts, and with the continuing investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, it gets kind of lost that Russian access to states’ voter rolls could have been the deciding factor in the election. The only saving grace, so far, is that no one in the government is claiming that any voter data, either registration or actual votes, was changed. But what are we supposed to believe? That Russian government hackers targeted multiple state election systems, broke into at least one (this number will surely grow), and just took a look around?
Donald Trump lost the presidential vote by 3 million, yet he won the election. Due to the arcane Electoral College, the democratic will of the people was subverted. But suppose it got a little help?
Donald Trump rode a wave of passion with his candidacy and disaffection with Hillary Clinton’s to a surprise showing in the election. That can’t be denied. A whole lot of voters were motivated, often into a frenzy, to support that megalomaniac, so what should have been a blowout turned into a tighter race than anyone expected. Combined with Clinton’s missteps, false equivalency for scandal in the media, a poor decision by the FBI to wade back into the Clinton email investigation with only a week left in the campaign, and the ongoing efforts of Republican-led state legislatures to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters, Democratic voter turnout was depressed.
Trump won Wisconsin by about 23,000 votes out of about 2.8 million votes cast. He beat Clinton by less than 8/10ths of a percentage point. Wisconsin has been a hotbed of voter suppression. They have a strict voter ID law that unfairly targets those of lesser means, typically minorities that vote reliably Democratic. The ID law has been in the sights of the courts at various points, and it has been ordered to be softened, but compliance has been lacking.
According to reporting from the New York Times, nearly 17,000 voters in Wisconsin were turned away from the polls due to the ID law. If the law worked as the state’s Republican legislators intended, then most of those turned away were Democratic voters. These are the facts. Now for some wild speculation.
Wisconsin was one of the states notified by Homeland Security that their voter rolls were targeted by the Russian government. If they got in, it would not have been necessary for the Russians to wait until the election, and then scramble to change votes in the time after polls closed and votes are tallied. A more effective strategy would be to simply delete registered Democrats from the rolls. And it wouldn’t have taken many.
Combined with the effects of the voter ID law, Russian government hackers could have randomly chosen, say, 40,000 registered Democrats to lop off the rolls and that would have been more than enough to swing the state. And it’s not that hard to predict the exact number needed beforehand. Wisconsin, despite voting for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1988, was a battleground state during the last campaign. Battleground states have close tallies, the winning candidate usually getting a plurality rather than a majority. It wouldn’t take much manipulation to have a huge impact.
Repeat these efforts in Michigan and Pennsylvania, states that were among those targeted by the Russian government, and all it would take is for one or two of the three states to go to Trump and the election is over. Clinton loses, despite winning. Clinton lost Michigan by 11,000 votes out of over 5 million cast, Pennsylvania by 44,000 out of 6 million cast. I remember watching on election night as these three states, critical to Trump’s victory, all fell his way one after the other. None of them had gone to a Republican candidate since 1988. Trump’s path to 270 Electoral votes was narrow, and it all broke his way. Of course, the results in these three states could very well be natural. Trump had an outside chance to take these states, but still a chance. A 25% chance to win the election, which is about what fivethirtyeight.com had Trump at a week before the election, is still a significant chance. If the lottery had those odds I would play every day.
Besides this speculation, there is ample anecdotal evidence that something went wrong on election day. Comment threads all over social media tell stories of voters being turned away from the polls not because they didn’t have ID, but because their names had disappeared from the rolls.
None of this is proof, but it does raise enough questions about the legitimacy of the 2016 presidential election that it should be investigated. Did Russian government hackers gain access to voter rolls in the three states above that were critical to Trump’s campaign? If so, were registered voters deleted from the database? If so, in what numbers, and of what party affiliation?
These are questions that are too important to ignore. Collusion with the Trump campaign and shenanigans by the Russians on Facebook or elsewhere are dirty and malicious, but pale in comparison to actual penetration of voter rolls and election manipulation.
It is clear that Russia has as one its foreign policy goals to temper American power by undermining the democratic process. If we can’t get our own house in order, we will have less energy to impose our will abroad, which serves Russian interests. But actually stealing an election is an act of war, and that’s before even considering the scoundrel the Russians might have saddled us with.
Until we deal with the vulnerabilities of our patchwork election systems, our democracy, the legitimacy of our republic, is suspect.