Russian Hacking, Voting Restrictions, Data-Mining, and Threats to Democracy

by on June 21, 2017 · 0 comments

in Politics

By Doug Porter

Our ability to vote in fair and free elections has never been more in doubt. This is about more than any single foreign power, dark money donor, or racist state official taking action to degrade Democracy. It’s about all of them combined. Follow me down this rabbit hole….

The Supreme Court has just agreed to hear a case challenging partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin. While it will be a while before a ruling gets announced, this case has the potential to unleash a wave of lawsuits against widespread partisan gerrymanders nationally.

Author Greg Palast is coming to San Diego on June 30th. His 2016 film “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” presents an overview of modern-day voter suppression efforts threatening our representative democracy.

The Intercept has now published a report indicating information on 198 million US voters was accidentally left unprotected on the internet by a GOP contractor. The data included: “the voter’s date of birth, home and mailing addresses, phone number, registered party, self-reported racial demographic, voter registration status” as well as computer “modeled” speculation about each person’s race and religion.

Both the Intercept and Bloomberg News have published stories in recent weeks confirming Russian cyber campaigns targeting voting systems in the United States.


Scene from a rally in front of the Supreme Court where justices were hearing cases on the Voting Rights ActThe way voter districts in Wisconsin were redrawn following the 2010 census is typical of the way Republicans have gerrymandered most congressional and legislative districts across America. In the 2012 election, they were able to win a strong legislative majority even though President Obama carried the state by 7 points and Democratic legislative candidates won more votes statewide than Republicans did.

Stephen Wolf at Daily Kos breaks down the significance of this high court case:

VotingWhile it has regularly invalidated maps for improper racial gerrymandering, the Supreme Court, as noted above, has never struck down a map for excessive partisanship despite 31 years of precedent that partisan gerrymandering could theoretically be unconstitutional. In a 2004 case on the same topic, Justice Anthony Kennedy, as the deciding vote, refused to strike down the map in question on the basis that it represented an unfair partisan gerrymander. However, Kennedy effectively opened the door for future challengers to come up with a new standard that could satisfy the court’s perennial swing justice.

The plaintiffs in Wisconsin have sought to overcome that problem by proposing one such mathematical test called the “efficiency gap” that examines how many votes get “wasted” in each election, which we have explained in detail here

A victory for plaintiffs in Wisconsin could subsequently deprive Republicans of the lock that they have on Congress and legislatures across the country.

Democrats have only pulled this kind of bs in a tiny handful of states. California has mostly taken the process out of politicians hands.


Efforts at voter suppression in the United States encompass a wide range of bureaucratic and legal obstructions, usually done in the name of preventing ‘voter fraud.’

Accusations of election improprieties are a staple of fright-wing politicians, despite extensive research documenting the flimsiness of their accusations. Various publications catering to the conservative fringe keep running articles with unprovable claims and, of course, we have a president who has appointed an mostly fictional commission to look into the matter.

What’s really amazing is how politicians change their tune on this subject depending on which way the political winds are blowing. Once they’re in power, claims of illegal voting just fade into history.

There are, however, far more effective tactics being used than ballot box stuffing or illegal votes cast.

Among the voter suppression tactics used in various states are restrictions on voter registration as in Florida, where state regulations prompted the League of Women Voters to shut down their non-partisan program.

Restrictions imposed by many states with voter ID laws are structured to discriminate against certain classes of voters, like in Tennessee and Texas which student ID is not allowed, but concealed carry permits are.

So-called ‘proof of citizenship’ laws continue to be enacted, discriminating against women who get married and change their last names. A decade-old Brennan Center report indicated one-third of voting-age women did not have access to proof of citizenship with their current legal name.

In states like Michigan, Republicans used “caging” via foreclosure lists to disenfranchise voters in the 2008 election and were ordered to reinstate 5,500 voters wrongly purged from the voter rolls.

North Carolina’s attempt at voting restrictions went down in flames in July 2016, when a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial court decision finding that the new voting provisions targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision,” and that the legislators had acted with clear “discriminatory intent” in enacting strict election rules, shaping the rules based on data they received about African-American registration and voting patterns.

Greg Palast’s research published in Rolling Stone suggests a system called Crosscheck was used to purge 1.1 million Americans of color from the voter rolls of GOP–controlled states.

Crosscheck in action:

Trump victory margin in Michigan: 13,107
Michigan Crosscheck purge list: 449,922

Trump victory margin in Arizona: 85,257
Arizona Crosscheck purge list: 270,824

Trump victory margin in North Carolina: 177,008
North Carolina Crosscheck purge list: 589,393

Palast’s San Diego presentation on Friday, June 30th will be at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest (4190 Front Street). Tickets are available via EventBright. His appearance is a fundraiser for KNSJ Community Radio and Activist San Diego.

A note about Palast. His research is solid. But he is a showman, so it’s fair to expect some entertainment at this event, which will include a shortened version of his movie.

So the Russians were here. And if you believe Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, and the testimony of former FBI director James Comey, they enjoyed their visit:

“They’ll be back,” Comey said of the Russian government. “They’ll be back in 2020, they may be back in 2018, and one of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful because they introduced chaos and division and discord and sowed doubt about the nature of this amazing country of ours and our democratic process.”

The Intercept’s report on Russian hackers’ cyberattack on a U.S. voting software supplier just days before the election came via documents leaked by an employee of an NSA contractor who was unhappy about that publication’s continued denials of interference.

The leaker, Reality Leigh Winner, was quickly arrested, having left behind an easily followed trail of clues for the FBI to follow. The Intercept may have contributed to her demise thanks to some sloppy follow-up work.

The Intercept story…

…adds significant new detail to the picture that emerged from the unclassified intelligence assessment about Russian election meddling released by the Obama administration in January. The January assessment presented the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions but omitted many specifics, citing concerns about disclosing sensitive sources and methods. The assessment concluded with high confidence that the Kremlin ordered an extensive, multi-pronged propaganda effort “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

The Bloomberg report indicates voting systems were targeted by Russian in as many as 39 states. It does not tell us what the Russians gleaned from those attempts, nor how it might have been used.

One of the mysteries about the 2016 presidential election is why Russian intelligence, after gaining access to state and local systems, didn’t try to disrupt the vote. One possibility is that the American [The White House called Moscow in October]warning was effective. Another former senior U.S. official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the classified U.S. probe into pre-election hacking, said a more likely explanation is that several months of hacking failed to give the attackers the access they needed to master America’s disparate voting systems spread across more than 7,000 local jurisdictions.

Such operations need not change votes to be effective. In fact, the Obama administration believed that the Russians were possibly preparing to delete voter registration information or slow vote tallying in order to undermine confidence in the election. That effort went far beyond the carefully timed release of private communications by individuals and parties.

One former senior U.S. official expressed concern that the Russians now have three years to build on their knowledge of U.S. voting systems before the next presidential election, and there is every reason to believe they will use what they have learned in future attacks.

Meanwhile, contractors working for the Republican party left a gold mine of information available for the Russians or anyone else looking to manipulate or influence election results, via the Intercept: (Emphasis mine)

via Pronk Palasades

What UpGuard appears to have discovered, sitting on an Amazon cloud storage drive with no password or username required for access by anyone on the internet, was terabytes of the data used to map the voter proclivities and demographics key to finding voters in those buckets. Beyond personal information like religion, age, and probable ethnicity, certain database files among those made public include individual scores for nearly 50 different beliefs, according to UpGuard’s analysis:

Each of fields under each of the forty-eight columns signifies the potential voter’s modeled likelihood of supporting the policy, political candidate, or belief listed at the top of the column, with zero indicating very unlikely, and one indicating very likely.

Calculated for 198 million potential voters, this adds up to a spreadsheet of 9.5 billion modeled probabilities, for questions ranging from how likely it is the individual voted for Obama in 2012, whether the agree with the Trump foreign policy of “America First,” and how likely they are to be concerned with auto manufacturing as an issue, among others.

I don’t know about you, but all this messing around with my participation in the process of elections is upsetting to me.

There can be no doubt the degrading of the electoral process is underway in the United States. This too is something we’re going to fight for. the advent of Big Data means we need new legal protections for all citizens. The use of such data in elections needs to be regulated and open for public inspection.

We don’t have to wait for Donald Trump to decide (or be forced) to quit to address these issues. Election data is managed at the state and local level.

In San Diego, the Citizen’s Oversight group successfully sued the Registrar of Voters to demand that all mail-in ballots must be included in the pool used to audit election returns for accuracy.

Voting systems in many localities are out-of-date, and legislators at both federal and state level need to be prodded to fund upgrades. Voting machines everywhere need to generate a paper trail for purposes of verification.

Some voter suppression schemes don’t involve the actual process of voting.


But an excerpt from Doug Porter’s column at our media partner, San Diego Free Press.


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