There is no compelling evidence that Russian hackers interfered with US voting machines to change vote totals in the 2016 election.
Read that sentence again, carefully. It’s true, to the best of my knowledge. There is, however, an important distinction between not having evidence of something and knowing it did not happen, especially when there has been no investigation that might have turned up said evidence.
In recent days, I have seen experts I respect quote, in mocking tones, a YouGov poll that says more than half of Democrats believe Russia tampered with vote totals. There is a valid point here: Many voters misunderstand recent announcements from the CIA and Department of Homeland Security that Russian intelligence agents hacked a number of entities in an effort to swing the election for Trump. Those hacks did not include voting machines, and no government agency (or any other reputable source) has come forward to say the Russians hacked US voting machines.
That said, reporters overstep the truth when they say “Russia did not hack American voting machines.” No one knows whether they did or did not, because no investigation has occurred.
As it happens, I am one of those 51% of Democrats who believe Russia hacked American voting machines to change our vote totals. Did they succeed? Are they the reason Trump won? I can’t say. But I believe it happened. Why?
Let’s look at the things we do know:
- We know Russian intelligence actively interfered in the 2016 Presidential election with the intent of helping Donald Trump win.
- We know Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign, the personal email of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta, and a number of other political organizations, universities, think tanks, and corporations. This was a wide-ranging effort with an enormous number of targets, both successful and unsuccessful.
- We know the Russians hacked voting machines in the 2014 Ukrainian election, with the intention of changing vote totals and electing their preferred, but less-popular, candidate. This effort failed only because election observers noticed it at the eleventh hour.
- We know voting machines in the US are especially vulnerable to hacking, and that the same technique used in Ukraine in 2014 (the one that would have succeeded, if someone hadn’t noticed it) would definitely work on voting machines in the US.
- We know that *if* such a voting machine hack happened, it would be almost impossible to detect electronically, and would require an audit of paper ballots to uncover.
- We know that at least one state, Wisconsin, found dramatic discrepancies in vote count in four separate counties, and that the resulting “mistake” votes were all for Donald Trump.
Now, look down that list of things we know, and explain to me why we should believe a state-sponsored intelligence outfit that (1) engaged in wide-ranging hacks (2) in an effort to swing an election for their preferred candidate (3) in a nation where voting machines are highly vulnerable, and (4) have a history of hacking such voting machines in an effort to change votes would not have attempt such a hack in the United States?
American authorities refuse to investigate
Immediately following the election, J. Alex Halderman, a highly respected expert in computer science and cyber-espionage, cited a number of mathematical irregularities and called for an audit of ballots, which could conclusively determine whether any tampering had occurred. Importantly, Halderman pointed out that a simple recount (in which ballots are re-counted in the same method used on Election Night) would not suffice; in order to conclusively rule out hacking, states needed to compare electronic totals with actual paper ballots.
No such audit ever happened. Yes, Jill Stein did petition for recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Two of those recounts were halted before producing a result, and none of them included a true audit.
Where paper ballots have been reviewed — in that handful of Wisconsin counties, and in precincts around Detroit — the result has been massive discrepancies between paper ballots and reported totals. Not only did that result *not* increase calls for audits, it actually became a barrier — in Michigan, for some bizarre and unexplainable reason, state law prohibits recounts in any precinct where vote totals don’t match paper ballots.
It’s beyond me why automatic audit is not performed in a nation and an era when hacking voting machines is so easy most college students could do it. There seems to be some hubris tied up with our identity as the “world’s greatest Democracy” that prevents us from employing the same safeguards we push for in other nations.
Even our media seems complicit; they mock Democrats for suspecting foul play, deriding such suspicion as “conspiracy theory,” which is especially bitter when the President is currently censuring the participants in the conspiracy.
Maybe it’s just status quo bias. The knowledge that another nation altered the outcome of our election — maybe more than one election — might be so traumatic that Americans can’t bear to look, the equivalent of a cancer patient refusing to see a doctor for tests.
If I may push that cancer metaphor a bit, it represents a greater fear and the reason Americans of all party affiliations should push for a vote audit. A cancer, once detected, can be treated and removed; just the way a hack of voting machines could lead us to employ better security. The longer we refuse to look at it, the longer it has to grow.
I, for one, would like to see the biopsy. Until then, I will remain in that 51 percent of Democrats who don’t see any good reason a widespread Russian hack would omit our vulnerable voting machines.
Image: Wikimedia Commons