While just about everyone in our government with a skin color you can find in nature now believes that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, the conspiracy theory that dare not speak its name suggests that Russian hackers directly changed vote tallies in individual states.
It’s easy to see why this remains a third rail in any discussion of the 2016 election.
It’s one thing if Vladimir Putin convinced an army of shambolic Ken Bones that Hillary Clinton was treating her advanced Parkinson’s with Costco-sized pallets of Appalachian baby’s blood, but it’s another to acknowledge the possibility that votes were actually flipped.
But how crazy is that idea, really?
Yes, it’s a conspiracy theory; but some conspiracy theories — like the idea that a foreign adversary was ratfucking our entire election — turn out to be true.
For one thing, exit polls, which not that long ago were considered pretty accurate, wildly missed the mark in four key swing states, having predicted that Clinton would win Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.
Using exit poll totals compiled by election researcher Theodore de Macedo Soares, seen in the table below on this page as well as available at this link, compared to an ongoing tally of raw votes totals posted at this link by Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report, here is the discrepancy that has caused the suspicions of what Trump himself would call a “rigged election.”
Note that actual vote totals are compiled as of November 16.
FLORIDA — 29 Electoral Votes
(numbers equal percentage points)
Exit Polls: Clinton 47.7, Trump 46.4 — Clinton wins by 1.3
Actual: Clinton 47.8, Trump 49.0 — Trump wins by 1.2
Trump gain between exit polls and actual results: 2.5
NORTH CAROLINA — 15 Electoral Votes
Exit Polls: Clinton 48.6, Trump 46.5 — Clinton wins by 2.1
Actual: Clinton 46.1, Trump 49.9 — Trump wins by 3.8
Trump gain: 5.9
PENNSYLVANIA — 20 Electoral Votes
Exit Polls: Clinton 50.5, Trump 46.1 — Clinton wins by 4.4
Actual: Clinton 47.6, Trump 48.8 — Trump wins by 1.2
Trump gain: 5.6
WISCONSIN — 10 Electoral Votes
Exit Polls: Clinton 48.2, Trump 44.3 — Clinton wins by 3.9
Actual: Clinton 47.6, Trump 48.8 — Trump wins by 1.2
Trump gain: 5.1
So right away we can see something was hinky.
But now we know that Russian hackers targeted states’ election systems in 2016. Did they succeed in flipping votes?
Well, Michael Harriot, a reporter for The Root, seems to think so, and he’s putting his cards on the table in a column he posted today.
Harriot doesn’t claim that Russia definitely did change votes to get Trump elected, but he believes that’s the most likely scenario based on the available evidence. And I have to say, he doesn’t sound at all crazy:
U.S. officials will admit that Vladimir Putin interfered with the 2016 election. They don’t specifically deny that Russian operatives altered votes. They will only say they cannot confirm that fact. They will say that there is no conclusive evidence to support it.
That is simply not true.
When one dissects the publicly available information on Putin’s state-sanctioned campaign to elect Donald Trump, the same evidence that supports the intelligence community’s assertion that Russia wanted to elect Donald Trump also points to the inescapable fact Soviet [sic] actors most likely changed votes.
That’s a pretty remarkable claim, but he makes some great points. I’ve highlighted some of the more salient ones below:
We were left knowing that Russia attempted to break into almost half of America’s voter databases, but the DHS assured the public that they had no evidence that any of the systems were actually compromised.
That was a lie.
When Bradley Moss, a cybersecurity lawyer, won a freedom of information suit against the U.S. government for data on the Russian hacks, the documents revealed that Russia actually got inside the voting systems of seven states, including 4 of the 5 largest states in terms of electoral votes—California (55) Texas (38) Florida (29) and Illinois (20).
U.S. intelligence officials disputed the claim at first. But days later, on Feb. 18, DHS acknowledged that seven states were actually breached, and Homeland Security didn’t inform the individual states until eight months after the election, according to NBC.
Yet, in recanting its initial lie, a statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the intelligence community’s assessment “found that Russian actors did not compromise vote-tallying systems. That assessment has not changed.”
Those states have vehemently denied that any votes were changed in the 2016 elections. Then again most of the states had no idea their systems had been penetrated until they were specifically told.
In fact, 6 of the 7 states still deny that their systems were ever breached.
But we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that these systems were targeted and breached. We know that Russian actors got inside. We know the DHS withheld information about this for nearly a year—not only from the public but from the individual states. Illinois admits that hackers unsuccessfully attempted to alter and delete voters rolls but the intruders were unsuccessful, partly because the state has a decentralized system.
Harriot notes that, if the Russians were successful in changing votes, one place they may have done so was in Georgia, which was actually considered a toss-up state during the 2016 election cycle.
But what if there was a state who, unlike Illinois, had voter data, voting-machine information and election rolls on one central computer?
That’s exactly what happened in Georgia.
When the DHS notified state election officials that Russians had targeted election systems, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp was the lone state official who refused help from intelligence officials, according to Politico.
Around the time of the 21-state breach, a technician at the Center for Election Systems, the Georgia firm that handles the state’s election data, computers and training, found a hole in the election system’s server that would have allowed anyone to download or alter the database that included every voter in the state. He also found PDF files with the instructions, all the passwords and software files for the system that allowed poll workers to verify registered voters.
Moreover, in a since-unsealed indictment, the FBI discovered that two Russian military officers, Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev and Aleksandr Vladimirovich Osadchuk, conspired to hack into U.S. election systems in October 2016.
Georgia was one of the states listed.
“These sophisticated agents certainly [would have known] that Georgia’s entire election programming and management system, including private voter data, was on a single central computer managed by Secretary of State Kemp’s contract agent at Kennesaw State University,” Marilyn Marks, executive director of the Coalition for Good Governance, told Politico.
Aside from circumstantial evidence, it is impossible to know if ballots cast by Georgia voters were changed because the state does not require a post-election audit. Even if it did, an audit might not be possible because the state does not require voting machines to have paper ballots.
But we know Georgia uses some of the most hackable voting machines and runs its election on a system that was breached. In February, when the Center for American Progress graded each state on election security, Georgia earned a D.
The only logical explanation that could possibly explain why Russians did not change votes in Georgia is to somehow believe an international cabal of hackers got into the system, found instructions, voter registrations and passwords to voting machines and yet somehow decided not to do it, just because.
But what about a true swing state like, say, Pennsylvania, which exit polls suggested Clinton had easily won?
A recent report by the New York Times detailed how a Pennsylvania auditor checking his state’s voting system found remote access software on the system that tallies votes. Electronic Systems & Software, the company that makes those machines, is the biggest voting machine manufacturer in America.
To be clear, this was not a voting machine. The system that counts votes had software installed that allowed a person who was not on the scene to gain access to the voting results. But the strangest part of this revelation was why the machine was being audited in the first place:
Pennsylvania voters complained that the ES&S machines were changing or “flipping” votes.
We know Russia has the capability to do this.
It’s chilling to think this might have happened — even more so when one considers we have a big election coming up and our pr*sident doesn’t even want to acknowledge election interference, much less do anything about it.
And I admit I know as much about election systems and software as I do about running a high-end fashion line into the ground.
But Harriot makes some strong points, and we need to at least consider the possibility that the Kremlin’s campaign was far more successful than we realized. If we don’t, nothing will prevent us from losing our democracy and/or electing more Trumps.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.