Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election directly at the ballot box may have been more aggressive than we previously understood. The New York Times published an alarming investigation on Friday about hackers’ efforts to tamper with electoral systems and the government’s surprising lack of response to the threat. The article builds on revelations reported by the Intercept in June that Russia’s military intelligence agency had breached VR Systems, a company that provides electronic poll books to counties in eight states, beginning in August 2016. Hackers infiltrated at least two other unnamed companies providing essential election apparatuses like voter databases and registration operations in the months leading up to November, anonymous intelligence officials told the Times, and election systems in at least 21 states had been targeted. (In June, Bloomberg reported that Russian hackers had accessed election-related systems in 39 states. It’s unclear why the Times now estimates fewer states were penetrated.)
Durham County in North Carolina, a VR Systems client, faced particularly dire breakdowns on Election Day, as recounted by the Times. Many people were turned away at the ballot box, incorrectly told that they had already voted days earlier, or were ineligible to vote. Others were told to go to a different polling place, only to be rejected again upon arrival. A precinct had to shut down voting for two hours. These problems stemmed from faults in the electronic poll book software, which conducts the necessary verification of IDs and registrations when a voter checks in. Election Day e-poll book problems were also reported in Virginia, Georgia, and Arizona.
The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement for North Carolina ordered all precincts to revert to paper poll books after residents began inundating voter hotlines with complaints. As NPR has reported, this shift back to paper only produced more chaos, further delaying voting as poll workers awaited supplies and were forced to use scissors, tape, and glue sticks to cut out voters’ name and affix them to forms. This has contributed to a theory that the hackers’ strategy was simply to cause enough havoc to deter people from voting rather than alter the vote counts.
The New York Times reporters acknowledge that it is uncertain whether the problems were caused by Kremlin-directed hacking or a more innocuous mishap like software malfunctions or human error. Furthermore, an NSA analysis was unable to determine if the Russian hackers were successful in compromising the election vendors or what specific data had been accessed. Yet there have been few investigations by government agencies aimed at answering these questions. The inactivity is largely due to resistance from county and state officials, who have rejected help from federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. Some of these local governments adamantly deny there is proof of hacking, and they have fewer resources than the feds to conduct a sufficiently-thorough forensic analysis of their election software and equipment.
Independent electoral integrity watchdogs have been urging officials to more proactively look into the issue, to no avail. Some have been taking their concerns to the press. Susan Greenhalgh, who works for an election security organization called Verified Voting and figures prominently in today’s Times piece, has also appeared in recent stories by the Daily Beast, NPR, and USA Today.