Hacking the Vote

Could Putin's army of internet trolls pick our next president?


Igor Dolgov/Dreamstime

Lots of voters, especially Republicans, are worried about voter fraud. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump stoked those fears when he warned supporters, "I'm afraid the election's going to be rigged. I have to be honest." These fears and not-so-subtle efforts to skew voter registration in partisan directions have prompted strict voter ID requirements in several states with the purported aim of preventing the almost non-existent crime of voter impersonation fraud. But a recent Federal Bureau of Investigation "flash alert" suggests that the real threat of voter fraud might come from abroad.

Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the FBI has warned election officials in Illinois and Arizona that their voter databases had been penetrated by intruders linked to IP addresses associated with Russian hackers. The hackers managed to download personal data on 200,000 Illinois voters and posted online the username and password of a user with access to the Arizona voter registration database. This cyber-intrusion followed on the now notorious hacks of the Democratic National Committee's dossier on Trump and later its email system. The release of those emails by WikiLeaks showed that DNC officials favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders and led to Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz's resignation as Democratic Party chair.

The reports of voter registration database hacking provoked Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to send a letter to FBI Director James Comey that claimed "Russia's intent to influence the outcome of our presidential election has been well-documented by numerous news organizations." Reid also suggested that the Russian government might try to target American voting systems to throw the election to Trump. "The prospect of a hostile government actively seeking to undermine our free and fair elections," he wrote, "represents one of the gravest threats to our democracy since the Cold War."

There is, of course, more than one way to interfere in an election. It isn't paranoid to worry about a Russian disinformation campaign aimed at confusing Americans. A fascinating and disquieting Rand Corporation review, titled "The Russian 'Firehose of Falsehood' Propaganda Model," finds that "the Russian propaganda model is high-volume and multichannel, and it disseminates messages without regard for the truth. It is also rapid, continuous, and repetitive, and it lacks commitment to consistency." Recent Russian disinformation ranges from hacking an official Ukrainian website to claim a far-right candidate had won that country's 2014 presidential election to a social-media hijack trying to panic Louisiana residents with reports of a chemical plant explosion.

But is it actually possible for Russian agents to stuff American ballot boxes? Probably not.

America's decentralized electoral system is a significant bulwark against hacking the vote. There are some 8,000 jurisdictions in the U.S., and they use a mix of disparate electronic and paper balloting systems. Hackers trying to influence a national election would have to attack a whole bunch of individual machines, each with different software. On top of that, 75 percent of Americans will vote this year using paper ballots. (Of course, erasing voter registration rolls in key states just before the election would be disruptive, to say the least.)

For years, many researchers have been warning that our electronic voting machines are vulnerable. Only last year were the "worst voting machines" in America decertified by the board of elections in my home state of Virginia. (The machines left no paper trail and were so insecure that they could be hacked from the parking lot of the polling place.) Still, there is no evidence that those machines were in fact tampered with during any election. And even if they were, that in itself is unlikely to be enough to swing the results nationally.

If Russians can't effectively hack our voting machines, they can still try to introduce a little havoc into our elections. For example, according to New Yorker reporter Adrian Chen, Moscow-sponsored trolls operate a bunch of Twitter accounts to pose as conservative Trump fans. The point is not necessarily to get Trump elected, notes Chen, but rather "to overwhelm social media with a flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space."

Mercatus Center researcher Eli Dourado and his colleague Raymond Russell warn that Russian efforts like the DNC and voter registration hacks could be aimed at trying "to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election results themselves." They worry that Russian disinformation "could subvert our democratic tradition for years to come."

With his dark insinuations that the election is "rigged," Trump risks playing the role of useful idiot in Putin's stealth campaign to sow discord and induce greater distrust among Americans.