There's been a lot of talk this year about Russia's influence on this election. President-elect Trump has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin's oppressive kleptocracy, and reports have shown financial ties between Trump and Russia, sparking considerable speculation that this is why he refused to release his tax returns. Over the summer, anti-corruption investigators in the Ukraine found a handwritten ledger documenting $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments from a pro-Russia political party to Trump's former campaign chief Paul Manafort, who still resides in Trump Tower. On top of all this, intelligence officials believe Russian hackers fed Wikileaks unflattering hacked emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign.
U.S. intelligence officials also say prior to the election, hackers based in Russia hacked two U.S. voter registration databases. And it is possible that Russian hackers managed to tamper with the election directly, potentially even hacking voting machines to change the votes. While some experts caution there's no concrete evidence to support this, it is clear that Russian hackers were determined to meddle with this election.
Earlier this week, writer Dale Beran published a piece on Medium that dug into an interesting theory:
Why were our internal and public polls so unprecedentedly off the mark? Think-pieces have struggled to answer with ideas like “voting patterns have changed” (don’t they always?) or Conway’s “shadow supporters” purposefully misleading pollsters. But maybe the explanation is both crazier and much simpler.
Maybe Russia, continuing their well established patterns of tipping elections and quietly toppling governments (see: Ukraine, entire Cold War), in line with their clear preference for Trump, took advantage of electronic voting and simply hacked a few key vulnerable counties in Wisconsin, PA, and FL to take out a historically anti-Russian Clinton in favor of Trump. The narrative writes itself but is meaningless without a smoking gun. A series of twitter-connected local journalists may have found one, and basic statistical testing can easily disprove or verify it.
Beran combed through social media and press reports to compile "evidence" supporting this theory. He points out, among other things, that Russian hackers have repeatedly interfered with this election (the aforementioned voter database hackings), and that Russia has previously interfered in foreign elections. He notes that the electronic voting machines are quite hackable—indeed, Princeton professor Andrew Appel managed to hack one in minutes— and that both exit polls and, more importantly, prediction polls, were wildly incorrect this year.
The most interesting thing Beran notes is that there's a big statistical difference between counties in Wisconsin that use paper ballots, and counties that relied only on electronic voting machines. "In paper ballot counties Obama won in 2012, the ballot county losses are 1-2%," Beran says. "However in counties Obama won in 2012 that are purely digital, [Clinton] lost by 10-15%."
It's that last point that Beran makes the crux of his argument: as you can see from this map, some counties in Wisconsin use just paper ballots, while others use a mix of paper ballots and direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines that have voter-verifiable paper ballots. Because there was such a big discrepancy between the paper ballot counties and the digital ones, it's possible the latter were interfered with. (Many people are saying...)
Of course, this is not evidence, only speculation that may merit investigation. Beran says statisticians can control for other variables that might give a false correlation to see if the theory holds water—he suggests the same for all swing states. But experts point out that the hacking theory is a long shot. A report by University of Michigan researchers Matt Bernhard and J. Alex Halderman found that elections are certainly in danger of being tampered with—adversaries could cut power to key precincts, for instance, or tamper with voter registration databases to render voters ineligible, or manipulate the internet to keep voters from finding their correct polling sites. But according to their research it would still be difficult for a foreign government to actually change the votes.
David L. Dill, a professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford and the founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, similarly poked holes in Beran's theory.
"There have been similar studies in past elections, e.g., in Florida. There was a flaw, which was electronic voting machines in Florida were in more urban counties, which had much different voting patterns from the counties with optical scan systems," Dill told Gothamist in an email. "[Beran] says that someone should control for other sources of statistical variation, and I agree. When they do so, I would bet that the effect disappears."
Dill says the chances that Russia hacked the election are slim-to-none. "The attacks we know about were over the internet. Voting machines aren't on the internet," he said. "There theoretically ARE ways to attack them over the internet, e.g., modifying the software that is downloaded into them, but that takes more advance planning and there are significant risks of detection." Indeed, for hacking to take place, the Russians would have to have orchestrated a more The Americans-esque plot.
"People would be needed in the U.S.—at voting machine companies, in election offices, or, perhaps in polling places. Having Russian sleeper agents in the U.S. involved in this activity would require a much bigger investment and more long-term planning than hacking voter registration databases over the internet," Dill said. As he points out, there's no evidence that this is the case. (And Appel, the aforementioned Princeton professor who hacked into a voting machine, also told Gothamist he's "skeptical" that Russians hacked the machines.)
Walter Mebane, a professor of political science and statistics at the University of Michigan and an electoral fraud expert, agrees the discrepancy in Wisconsin counties doesn't necessarily signal vote fraud. "You can't really say much about that, because there are many differences about those places besides those electronic machines," Mebane told Gothamist. But he notes that Beran is not the only one who suspects something fishy might have happened in this election.
"People in the last couple of hours have been saying there are maybe going to be demands for a full recount in Wisconsin and some other states. I don't know what that's going to involve or what's going to happen," Mebane said, noting that any recounts would have to be complete by mid-December, before the members of the Electoral College cast their official votes. He added, "No one really knows what's going on."
Whether or not a vast Russian sleeper agent conspiracy directly handed this election to Trump, evidence does suggest Russia at least indirectly had some sway over Election 2016. The Trump team's personal emails weren't hacked, for instance, and considering how reluctant Vice President-elect Mike Pence is to hand over his private correspondence, it's possible he'd be making bigger headlines than former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. It's also not known why Russian hackers breached voter registration systems.
Alexandra Chalupa, a consultant with the Democratic National Committee who was investigating the Trump campaign's ties to Russia during the campaign, says that experts are looking into whether Russians were able to tamper with provisional ballots after hacking into voter registration systems. She told Gothamist that in Pennsylvania, 50 to 75 percent of provisional ballots were rejected; there were also a large number of voters who voted for a Republican president and senator, but voted for Democrats down the rest of the ballot. "That's usually not the pattern," she said.
Chalupa noted that the DNC still doesn't know how hackers were able to access staffers' emails undetected, and that it's possible even more voter registration databases were hacked than currently believed. When Illinois' databases were hacked, the hackers were "being loud," Chalupa said, but it could have been to throw off intelligence officers so they wouldn't look into other states.
"It's very, very scary," Chalupa said. "They've created havoc, chaos throughout this election that has hurt one of our major national committees publicly. We should very well assume that if something doesn't feel right with the election results, that election day was no difference."
Chalupa added, "If this happened, it means we've basically been invaded, politically invaded. It's an act of war."
The issue's not getting put to rest today. About 5 percent of Wisconsin's ballots will be subject to a post-election audit, and though it's unclear if that will conclude by the time the Electoral College votes are cast, it could catch any possible evidence of hacking.
Meanwhile, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed that Congress hold a series of hearings looking into whether Russia really was involved in hacking the DNC. "Were they involved in cyberattacks that had a political component to it in our elections?" Graham asked the Los Angeles Times. Because if so, he said, "Putin should be punished."