Disturbing new report zeroes in on mysteries still surrounding Russia's 2016 election hacking — and why we're still at risk
A new report from Politico on Thursday highlighted the persistent and troubling concerns about the security of U.S. elections, diving deep into some of the still unresolved mysteries about Russia's efforts to hack the 2016 election.
Much of the discussion of Russian election interference has focused on two separate prongs of the 2016 interference: the social media troll farms pushing propaganda and disinformation, and the hacking and dumping of emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chair. But journalist Kim Zetter focused in Politico on the third, less-discussed and yet even more disturbing tactic — the hacking of U.S. election infrastructure.
We've known for years that U.S. intelligence believes Russian agents tried to — and in some cases were successful — hack into key aspects of the decentralized American voting infrastructure in the run-up to the 2016 Election Day. But there hasn't been any solid evidence that Russia was actually able to affect the election result in any way at this vector. Some have speculated that they were just poking around, seeing what they could access, without risking a truly thunderous response from the U.S. by literally tampering with voter tallies.
Because it's unclear whether this interference tactic actually produced any tangible consequences — unlike social media propaganda and hacked emails, which reached many millions of voters — it hasn't garnered as much attention. But Zetter's piece highlights that the risks posed by these kinds of cyberattacks are extreme, and many unanswered questions from 2016 leave open the possibility that the hacking influenced who ended up voting.
She recounts an incident in Durham County, North Carolina — a swing state — that pushed some people away from the polls on Election Day. County officials struggled to load voter roll data onto the necessary laptops ahead of the vote, data that confirms the voters who show up are registered. Officials contacted the Florida company VR Systems that managed the software, and they tried to help fix the problem. While the data was eventually loaded, problems emerged on Election Day:
Almost immediately, though, a number of [the county laptops] exhibited problems. Some crashed or froze. Others indicated that voters had already voted when they hadn’t. Others displayed an alert saying voters had to show ID before they could vote, even though a recent court case in North Carolina had made that unnecessary.
State officials immediately ordered Durham County to abandon the laptops in favor of paper printouts of the voter list to check in voters. But the switch caused extensive delays at some precincts, leading an unknown number of frustrated voters to leave without casting ballots.
To this day, no one knows definitively what happened with Durham’s poll books. And one important fact about the incident still worries election integrity activists three years later: VR Systems had been targeted by Russian hackers in a phishing campaign three months before the election. The hackers had sent malicious emails both to VR Systems and to some of its election customers, attempting to trick the recipients into revealing usernames and passwords for their email accounts. The Russians had also visited VR Systems’ website, presumably looking for vulnerabilities they could use to get into the company’s network, as the hackers had done with Illinois’ state voter registration system months earlier.
As has previously been reported, Zetter noted that hackers also successfully penetrated to country voters systems in Florida in 2016 — another swing state — though it's unclear what they achieved.
The unanswered questions should disturb us. It's more than three years on from that monumental election, and we still don't have a comprehensive accounting of what happened. This is particularly problematic because, whatever happened in 2016, we're heading for yet another high-stakes election in 2020. The results of the election are highly important, and so is the public's confidence in the results, no matter who wins.
But under President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, election security has been grossly neglected. Republicans have blocked Democratic efforts to implement a robust response to the 2016 hacking and fortify U.S. voting infrastructure. Not only that, but Trump has been so obsessed with defending his shaky 2016 win and Russian President Vladimir Putin that he consistently casts doubt on the fact of the election interference. This means both that his supporters are less willing to do what it takes to counter the threat and, that should a repeat performance take place to swing the election in his favor, they'll be predisposed to dismiss any allegations about the corruption of the election out of hand.