Something smelled wrong about the election from the very start. In the weeks before the presidential balloting took place, millions of voters were bombarded with “fake news” about the candidates on Facebook and other social media sites. And when the vote tallies were announced, the nation was shocked by the results. There was scattered unrest, even violence — and loud whispers that the election had somehow been stolen. Some wondered about the role of Cambridge Analytica, the firm founded by a billionaire backer of Donald Trump.
Then, something remarkable — unprecedented, really — took place. The nation’s highest court decided to launch a thorough investigation of what really happened on Election Day. What the justices eventually uncovered was shocking — a scheme to change results from the actual polling places when they were tallied electronically. What happened next was perhaps more surprising: The Supreme Court justices ordered a new national election.
In America, there is a stubborn, almost inexplicable blindness about the myriad problems with our own 2016 election — including the alarming possibility that at least some of those problems were the result of a now-pretty-well-documented effort by a foreign power, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to meddle in the selection of this nation’s 45th president. It’s getting harder and harder not to think our nation’s top officials — not just President Trump and his aides who were the alleged beneficiaries of Russian meddling, but our intelligence agencies and even state and local officials — don’t really want to know whether Moscow’s interference was so great that it actually decided the race.
It’s as if they are terrified by what they might discover.
First, let’s review what we do know about Russia’s 2016 tampering, because that’s disturbing enough. We know that Trump officials eagerly met in June 2016 in Trump Tower with a cast of characters tied to Putin insiders and Russian intelligence who promised inside dirt on Hillary Clinton. A short time later, hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and a top Clinton aide went public on Wikileaks, at the same time Trump aides were keeping an anti-Putin plank out of the GOP convention platform and as Trump bizarrely made a public plea for Russia to find Clinton’s deleted emails (a cause also adopted by a GOP insider who claimed he was working for Trump, right before he committed suicide). Then came an avalanche of fake news — much of it grown in Russian content farms — to convince blacks or young people in key states such as Wisconsin to stay home or vote third party.
That’s bad, but it’s not as bad as what we don’t know: Whether Russia was able to hack into any state and local election systems in a way that might have changed the result — and thus throw the entire Nov. 8, 2016, result, with Trump’s narrow Electoral College win, into doubt. Although officials have slowly confirmed over the last 10 months that there’s evidence of Russian hackers trying to breach government election websites in nearly 40 states and actually gaining some access, at least in Illinois and Arizona, they’ve also assured us that a beefed-up effort by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence found zero evidence of Election Day hacking.
Now comes the New York Times to say: Don’t be so certain about that. In a blockbuster report that was inexplicably dropped on the Friday before Labor Day weekend, the newspaper revealed a) in one of the key states that gave Trump the election — North Carolina — voters in heavily Democratic urban precincts faced unexplained computer glitches that in some cases prevented people from casting ballots, using an electronic system known to have been targeted by Russian hackers and b) no federal, state or local agency has really aggressively probed this possibility of Election Day hacking — despite mounting evidence that the attempted tampering was more widespread than first acknowledged.
After a presidential campaign scarred by Russian meddling, local, state and federal agencies have conducted little of the type of digital forensic investigation required to assess the impact, if any, on voting in at least 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers, according to interviews with nearly two dozen national security and state officials and election technology specialists.
The Times article also raises the important possibility that Russian bad guys — or some other corrupt element — could have tampered with the U.S. presidential election in ways that no one has really focused on. A key point of the article involves problems on Election Day in 2016 with electronic poll books, the online system that officials at polling places use to determine who is eligible to vote and in what precinct.
Last Nov. 8, polling officials in Durham, N.C. — a town with a large college and non-white population that skews Democratic — found widespread problems with these records as voters showed up to cast their ballots. The problems were repeated in other localities in North Carolina and across the Sun Belt that had used electronic poll books run by software from VR Systems — a company that had been breached by Russian hackers months earlier.
The Times scoop makes the point that, while election watchers have looked for evidence that hackers stole the election by changing the actual votes that have been cast — and no hard evidence of that has been found — it was also possible to mess with the outcome by making sure that some votes in heavily Democratic wards were never cast at all. A recount is meaningless for votes that were prevented from happening in the first place. The even bigger problem, as noted by the Times, is that no one is looking too hard to see how often this happened, or why.
Something else here is important to note: American elections are easy to mess with because America’s election system is terrible — Russian hacking or no Russian hacking. Voters went to the polls in 2016 after years of efforts by mostly GOP-led state governments to make it hard for citizens — but especially non-white citizens, college students or the elderly — to cast ballots. Consider Wisconsin, the state where Trump pulled arguably his biggest upset, winning by only 22,748 votes. Critics have said Wisconsin’s turnout fell sharply because of its voter ID law (although maybe not by 200,000, as one study claimed.) Voters in the Badger State were also badgered with “fake news” — some of it undoubtedly from Russia. It’s hard to tell an array of innocent computer glitches and malfunctions from criminal hacking.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or political scientist to figure out what needs to be done. In the long run, we need massive election reform — including a new and improved Voting Rights Act that would pinpoint the most pernicious voter ID laws, an Election Day federal holiday, and same-day voter registration. We need a voting system that leaves a real paper trail that can be routinely audited and easily investigated when there are allegations of vote tampering. And, as the Times article makes clear, we need a more thorough investigation of computer hacking and other problems that occurred in 2016 — regardless of the possibility that we might learn the unthinkable.
This isn’t the first time America was afraid of asking hard questions. Does anyone remember the Warren Commission? There’s no precedent for undoing an election result if an investigation uncovered proof of direct interference with the balloting, and so perhaps it’s not shocking that the political establishment isn’t eager to contemplate this. Personally, I think that Americans can handle the truth — and that a serious investigation is called for. But for right now, if you want a government that takes election tampering seriously, you may have to move to Kenya.