As 2016′s do-or-die presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton drew near, many students at North Carolina Central University, a historically black institution in the city of Durham, couldn’t wait to cast their ballots, to Soar to the Polls, in the name of an early-voting rally staged by campus activists.
“These Millennials are not alienated," Jarvis Hall, an NCCC poli-sci professor, said when the rally was held late that October. "They are engaged, involved and concerned, and they want to draw attention to and take advantage of the early voting.” But those students who instead waited until the fateful Election Day of November 8, 2016, to vote at a campus polling place didn’t soar, but instead came in for a crash landing.
Susan Greenhalgh, the executive director of an alliance called the National Election Defense Coalition, was manning a national voting hotline that morning and her phone was ablaze with calls from all over North Carolina and especially from Durham, a Democratic enclave in a purple battleground state.
The electronic poll books — records of who’s eligible to vote, to be manned by workers with laptops — had crashed, and Durham County soon took the whole system off-line. The hasty switch to printed poll books, with many voters forced to cast paper provisional ballots, was a comedy of errors — some poll workers dashed out to the Fed Ex store to copy ballots because there were so few — that grew into lines stretching out the door. Facing waits as long as four hours, frantic hotline callers told Greenhalgh they had to take kids to school or deal with an elderly relative, and didn’t think they could come back later in the day and vote in the presidential race.
In the end, we’ll never know how folks went home and didn’t vote in North Carolina, a key swing state that Trump won by 173,000 votes — and that’s neither the only mystery about what happened in Durham, nor the biggest. Just days before the 2016 voting, Greenhalgh and other activists had heard the first reports that Russian operatives had tried to hack into an election technology company called VR Systems. She wondered that day if VR Systems was Durham’s vendor.
Incredibly, it is just now — 32 long months after North Carolina’s Election Day snafus — that officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have finally launched a serious probe into the possibility that Russian hackers crashed the computers or altered data that caused those crushing lines. DHS investigators are launching a forensic analysis of those laptops that crashed in Durham County — an effort that North Carolina officials had requested a year and a half ago.
Even more incredible: We might never have gotten here were it not for the actions of a heroic whistle-blower — Reality Winner, who leaked federal intelligence about the VR Systems hack when most key state officials knew nothing about it, and who has been prosecuted, imprisoned and held incommunicado by the Justice Department for her efforts — and the diligence of special counsel Robert Mueller, who confirmed a successful malware plant by Russian agents.
Now here’s the most incredible part: U.S. election systems could be every bit as vulnerable to outside monkey business in the 2020 presidential election, because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his GOP lawmakers are refusing to vote on critical election security bills that would provide federal dollars and support to local election systems to upgrade cybersecurity, as well as requiring paper ballots and audits that would ensure the integrity of the vote.
“The big picture that people need to understand is that if someone wants to impact an election, by hacking the voter data base or electronic poll systems then they can impact it by disenfranchising selected people,” Greenhalgh told me. In other words, most conversation around election hacking has focused on whether some bad actor like Russia could get into the tallying computers and change the vote count — and there’s been no evidence that they did (or that they didn’t, for that matter). But now North Carolina’s problems have experts worried that the real interference could come from crashing the poll books or altering addresses or voting histories to cause mass chaos on Election Day.
It was a smaller picture, though, that prompted me to write about what happened in Durham. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a photo snapped by Sara D. Davis for Getty Images that showed a half-dozen African American students on that four-hour line at NCCC with a looks of total frustration mixed with anguish. The photo made me think of both the decades-long struggle to bring voting rights to blacks in the American South, as well as the modern outrage of mostly Republican lawmakers trying to close campus polling places, kill off early voting, reduce hours — anything that will make it harder for young people or people of color to cast ballots.
Suddenly, it just seemed too fitting — that if Russia was going to hack an election and sow chaos and division in the United States, of course they would attack a polling place at an HBCU in a Southern state like North Carolina. That would mean that Vladimir Putin and the Republican Party, in trying to erase black votes, were on the same page. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Greenhalgh and other activists say there’s a good chance that it’s too late to figure out if North Carolina’s poll-book problems were caused by hackers — which is why they’re mad that officials didn’t take their pleas, going back to the fall of 2016, more seriously. State and local officials in North Carolina have long insisted the problems in Durham were caused by unspecified human error and by “computer glitches,” a vague explanation that doesn’t seem to eliminate hacking. Generally, it seems like bureaucratic stubbornness and pride has made officials on the local level reluctant to take the election hacking threat seriously, while federal agents work for a POTUS who refuses to entertain the notion he was elected with outside help.
But at this point, the need to still — after all this time — get to the bottom of what really happened in 2016 is not to declare Trump’s presidency illegitimate (he seems perfectly capable of doing that himself) but to make sure it doesn’t happen next time. It might not matter what DHS investigators find in North Carolina because McConnell — the same McConnell who dismissed the idea of warning voters about Russian meddling right before the 2016 vote — is insistent that our patchwork quilt of county and city officials can handle election security without help from Washington.
“I do think the missing story that very few of you have written about is the absence of problems in the 2018 election," McConnell said recently. "I think the Trump administration did a much, much better job.” (Greenhalgh says that actually there were a lot of problems in 2018, in multiple states.) As a result, McConnell and his GOP are balking at spending more in the federal budget on election security aid. Nor is he likely to bring up several bills that specifically target the problem by mandating paper ballots and audits — which experts say is the only proven way to make sure that computerized systems don’t lose votes forever, whether from hackers or those dreaded glitches. They must be cracking open the vodka and doing a Cossack jig at the internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg.
McConnell — as I’ve noted in that space many times — is one of just two current senators (his opposite, Bernie Sanders, is the other) who was in Washington in August 1963 to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. If McConnell has a fragment of a soul left, maybe he and his GOP colleagues can ask themselves why they’re making it harder for people’s votes to matter, instead of easier. Because when I look at that picture of North Carolina college kids so desperate to make their very first presidential vote count, I see a dream deferred, and it’s heartbreaking.