Democratic elections break down into two parts, the campaign and the vote.
The first part of the 2016 American Presidential election, the campaign, saw unprecedented levels of voter manipulation, based on digital databases of information about voters of unprecedented size, and unprecedented intimacy of detail. But the vote itself, by all reports, escaped clean.
Here’s how voter manipulation worked: people paid for by billionaire Robert Mercer, and following themes selected by strategist Steve Bannon, pawed through the lives of 87 million people plucked off Facebook. They wanted clues on how to bait a hook, to reel in voters for Donald Trump or favored Tea Party Republicans.
Meanwhile a lot of the lures, the fake news items like the Pope blessing The Donald, or Hillary hiding several fatal illnesses — the lies the Mercer/Bannon team were aiming precisely at selected social media contacts and friends –were created, launched and tested at the now-infamous Russian “troll factory” the Internet Research Agency.
Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller recently indicted 13 people tied to Russia’s voter manipulation program, led, the indictment says, by an oligarch known as “Putin’s chef.”
How many votes did the Russian propaganda, marketed by Bannon and Mercer, actually change? We’ll never know, but, all of them can be counted against the campaign. On Election Day, and in all the early and absentee voting that went on, more than a year of intensive investigation has turned up not a single Russia-tainted vote.
That’s the good news. The bad news? It wasn’t because the Russians didn’t try. Cyber-investigators say there is evidence that hackers tied to Russian government or intelligence organizations tried to penetrate at least 21 state voting systems. The worst news? The Russian hackers got inside the State of Illinois’ voter rolls, and viewed data on some 76,000 Illinois voters.
What were the Russians after? Hard to tell, because, investigators say, despite the penetration in Illinois , no information was changed.
But, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) of the Senate Intelligence Committee summed up a widespread suspicion, “What it looks like is a test.”
At a recent public hearing, several committee members made it clear, if they were giving the Department of Homeland Security a test on how it’s doing on ballot security for November, the Department would flunk.
The real test, of course, is still a little more than 6 months away.
Christina Cassidy is a reporter for AP’s state government team, tracking state laws with a focus on budgets and elections. As she explains, “I work with colleagues around the country to investigate state agencies, track taxpayer money and hold state officials accountable.
I draw on my experiences working as a reporter in three major media markets _ Los Angeles, Atlanta and Las Vegas.
I am passionate about breaking news and telling important stories that resonate long after the news conference is over and the camera crews leave.