A Truly Fancy Bear:

Did Trump win because Russia hacked the election?

Please god someone disprove this and dig me out of my rabbit hole.

So a friend of mine, a research scientist at a renowned university, came to me with this theory hoping I would punch some holes in it:

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.

The idea is based on these posts on Twitter and Facebook.

I searched the internet for an article or post in which someone has compiled all the evidence of this (conspiracy?) theory in one place — in a readable format— but couldn’t find one. So I made this.

Please note, I’m not convinced this idea is true by any means. But it was fascinating to try and lay out the case for it theoretically. And most interestingly, as you’ll read below, it seems there is a way to prove or disprove it (see Part II: Section 4 below).

Please also note, I’m not a journalist. But perhaps if this election taught us anything, it’s that no one is. I’m a writer (and god help me, a cartoonist), with degrees in history and law, if that’s worth something to you.

So here we go: the evidence that Russia hacked the swing states throwing the election to Donald Trump — special guest star: statistics!

Part I: The Summary


1. Russian hackers interfered with the U.S. election in favor of Trump many times prior to election day. (source: U.S. Gov’t, Nytimes)

2. Russian hackers attempted to hack into voter databases in key swing states. (source: CNN, NBC news)

Pattern and Practice

3. Russia has been interfering in foreign elections for decades now. (source: Nytimes, et al.)


4. The electronic voting machines are very, very, very hackable. (source: Scientific American, Politico)

“Smoking Gun” Evidence that the hacking took place

5. Here’s the crux of the argument that needs to be researched further:

There seems to be a large statistical difference between counties in Wisconsin that have a purely digital system and those that use a system with a paper ballot back up. In paper ballot counties Obama won in 2012, the ballot county losses are 1–2%. However in counties Obama won in 2012 that are purely digital, she lost by 10–15%.

What could account for such a huge difference? Especially, if the counties are right next to each other? In other words, is this evidence that Russia interfered with counties in swing states where they didn’t have paper ballots to check the results?

According to my friend the scientist, the most interesting part of this data is that it can be checked by using science. By employing statistics, we can figure out whether in fact the only relevant difference between these counties that explains the result is the voting machines (not for example, a change in the age or other demographics of the voters). If this is the case, that would be pretty damning evidence of a hack.

In fact, why stop at Wisconsin? So much of this data is freely available and such a study can be done for all the swing states.

So the central takeaway here is: Please someone (who is a statistician) do this study!

6. The exit polls don’t seem to match the vote tallies. Here, Clinton is ahead in key states such as Florida. (source: Slate)

7. The prediction polls have never been this wrong in any presidential election. Ever. What’s broken? The polls? Or is it the election system? (Source: Gallup, The Telegraph)

The polls predicting the election were off by about 7.6 percent. However, here you can see generally it’s around 0.2 to 3%.

Part II: The Deep Dive into each of these points

“Hold onto your butts!”

-Jurassic Park

The Motive

1. Russian hackers interfered with the U.S. election in favor of Trump many times prior to election day.

The United States Government itself has stated that Russia has been using various hacking groups to influence the election in favor of Trump. These efforts include hacks into the email servers of the D.N.C. as well as Hillary’s high level staffers. Many other independent news sources have verified these claims. U.S. officials were deeply concerned they would do the same on election day itself. Here is a New York Times editor, a few days before the election, saying journalists should look into the issue.

The evidence for this is so ironclad, I’m not going to bother addressing the very thin arguments against it. How could you argue against a consensus of professional security analysts?

One of the few people who did was Trump himself, refuting the conclusion that it was Russia during the first debate. But I’m going to leave Trump’s personal actions and all of his (well documented) ties to Russia out of this entire analysis until the very end, and assume that Russia acted alone — that is to say, without Trump’s help or knowledge. This will make the argument clearer.

2. Russian hackers broke into voter databases in key swing states.

It is documented that the Russians succeeded in these attacks. Note, that the Russians accessed not the actual voting machines but the voter databases, the lists of voters on the rolls in those states. They targeted the vendors, the companies who maintain the machines.

Why would they do this? Why would they want such peculiar data? Down in point 4 below, the possible answer to this question will be discussed in more detail.

But first, let’s address another possible objection. Was it the Russian government who performed these hacks, or just Russians? The United States government, among others, believes it was the Russian government. One of the reasons of course, is Russia’s pattern and practices. Let’s take a look at those.

Pattern and Practice

3. Russia has been interfering in foreign elections for decades now.

Here is an excerpt from the New York Times about how Russia interfered in the Ukrainian elections (and so could interfere in ours),

Sound far-fetched? It happened recently in Ukraine, in an attack organized by Russia, experts believe. As Ben Buchanan and Michael Sulmeyer note in a Harvard Cyber Security Project report, investigations revealed that “offenders were trying by means of previously installed software to fake election results.” The effort was discovered 40 minutes before the results were scheduled for announcement. The Harvard report notes that “curiously, pro-Russian TV nonetheless reported the fake results exactly.”

If you don’t follow the news, Ukraine was the country Russia recently partially conquered. As you probably are already thinking at this point, “Hey, didn’t the former head of Trump’s campaign, Paul Manafort, work for the pro-Russian dictator of Ukraine? And didn’t he resign from the Trump campaign because his name was found in an Ukrainian account book detailing how he was bribed by the Russian government?” Yes, that’s the same one. What a coincidence. But, again, I won’t discuss that until the end, since I think this argument can be made without showing any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. But is there evidence for that as well? The short answer is, certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence.

But let’s pull back and take a larger historical view of what sort of country Russia is and how it acts. Note that the cold war itself was essentially a war of electioneering. From 1945 to 1991, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. competed to overthrow governments in smaller countries and install regimes that aligned with their political interests (Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, the Soviet Bloc, the list could go on for a very long time.) Both countries generally accomplished this through their security apparati — the CIA and KGB, respectively.

But to the Russians, the cold war never ended. In his book on the subject, the former KGB agent Sergei Tretyakov describes how a sense of disappointment at the KGB during the fall of the Soviet Union very quickly changed into a feeling that the U.S. had won a battle, but not a war — that is to say the war, the cold war. The KGB turned into the FSB and continued on like it always had. If you really want to get a get a good idea about how the Russian government regards the U.S. as an enemy, listen to his really interesting interview on NPR.

Putin is, of course, a former KGB agent. But unlike say, President H. W. Bush, who ran the CIA for a time, many biographers emphasize how the KGB defined Putin. As far back as 2000, a Washington Post article titled “Putin’s career Rooted in Russia’s KGB” details how he was recruited gleefully as a teenager into the service and spent “the last half of the 1980s recruiting people to spy on the west” giving them elaborate cover stories called “legends”. Sixteen years after taking power, is Putin employing the same methodology to serve Russian interests? The general consensus by Russian experts and expats is yes.

If we look even more broadly at history, we can see a pattern of the U.S. always being somewhat out-paced by more unscrupulous Russian spy-craft. The U.S. plays the role of the powerful well-meaning oaf tricked by a more cunning adversary, Thor to Loki, or Superman to Lex Luthor. Remember for example, “The Thing”, a gift of Russia’s brotherly goodwill to the U.S. that hung in the White House until it was discovered that it was in fact a subtly designed listening device.

The U.S.’s post-cold war stance could be seen as the same trusting nature rolling back around to punish us.

Which gets us to the voting machines. These, it turns out, are sort of like the luggage on the carousels at the airport, or the gas pumps that let you pump first, protected really by nothing more than the expansive, big-hearted, American idea that we are living in a society. That is, until one person comes along and ruins it for everyone else.

4. The U.S. voting machines are very, very, very hackable.

Let me just begin this section by citing this article about how a professor tasked a graduate student to hack a voting machine. It took him seven minutes.

Not convinced?

Maybe it’s because during the election there was a lot of reasoning asserting the machines were safe because they were so old, inconsistent, and varied. Here is an “election blogger” — note not a security expert speaking about this topic on NPR:

HASEN: In part — well, there are — so far as I know, voting machines themselves that are not connected to the Internet — so it’s not as though we have a central repository of all votes. Someone could go in and change the numbers and that’s it. Instead, you know, in my book, I criticize our decentralized election system. But one of the benefits of that system is that things are done on the local level.

However, if you think about it, this argument is insane. A creaky, old, patchwork of idiosyncratic systems is not more safe. Which building would be easier to break into? A building with a fancy new security system that is consistent throughout and centralized? Or a building with a patchwork of weird different old systems where the security is doing its own thing at every different door and there’s no communication or coordination between the doors?

Note in general, the older the tech, the more vulnerable it is to hacks. The best way to safeguard against attacks is by constantly updating software and firmware in a never ending battle between black hat and white hat security experts.

The iPhone is an excellent example of this. As you can imagine, top people in the field work to secure your iPhone. However, after each software update is released to fix the hacks, the security is inevitably broken again, sometimes within the span of a few days or even hours. Now think about a voting machine that’s 10 or 15 years old, which hasn’t received a software or firmware update for about that long — and hardware, too, that doesn’t have an army of top people constantly reinventing it with security in mind.

Security experts in fact believe voting machines to be incredibly insecure.

The above linked video breaks those vulnerabilities into three main camps. But let’s just look at the first two:

A) inserting a USB stick into the hardware or otherwise messing with the hardware

B) changing the vote tally when it is uploaded

A is, apparently, incredibly easy to do in seven minutes or less. B is also very possible.

Another argument for the safety of voting machines (stated also by Hansen above), is that they “are not connected to the internet.”

Well, except that, eventually, they are, to upload the votes. That’s vulnerability B. Just use common sense. Once the machines collect the votes — how do you get the votes to the central place to count them? Seal up the machines and load them on a truck? (That doesn’t happen) Collect the votes on a usb stick and carry them there? (Even worse) Or send them via the internet? As Tom Scott says in his video, “If all of these sound like bad options to you they are!”

The weak point for both A and B style hacks, according to security experts, are the vendors of the machines.

Here is an excerpt from Scientific American article on the subject:

One of the reasons e-voting systems turned out to be such a failure is that the only people involved in checking these systems were the vendors, who wanted to sell their technology, and the local election officials, who were ill-equipped to understand the security issues, says David Dill, a Stanford University computer science professor and founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, a nonprofit organization pushing for the implementation of voting processes that can more easily be verified and audited. “There was a certification process in place,” Dill says, “but it had very little to do with security.”

Remember when I told you in point 2 we would return to the question of why Russia would hack the vendors. Well, here we are.

So let’s pretend you are an employee at “Fancy Bear” (actual name for it) — the state sponsored office in Russia where professional hackers work 9 to 5 each day, every day for years to break into every foreign system they can. Yes, this office exists. We have an office like this, too; it’s called the NSA. Ours is, well, rather humongous. How big do you think Russia’s is?

Your job as a Fancy Bearian is to hack the U.S. voting machines. You’re probably part of a huge team doing this. But let’s pretend you’re just one guy. What would you do? What would be the first steps? Presumably, you would start by finding out as much as possible about the vendors of the voting machines. That is, after all, the publicized weak point. You would get to know everything about them. Their way of doing business. The exact models of the crappy old machines that they use. Every scrap of information about how they operate.

Then you would simply send an FSB agent, who is also an American citizen in a swing state (or impersonating one, since, well you’ve already hacked the voter rolls) to vote and manipulate the machine using one or more of its many documented A-type vulnerabilities. If a graduate student could do it in 7 minutes, how long would it take someone who does it professionally? Who goes to an office and has been paid a salary to work on the problem for years?

Or you would just go in remotely, if you were lucky enough to find a B-type vulnerability. Or you know, do both.

You wouldn’t hack machines that have paper ballot back ups. After all, if you’re found out, you’ve done all this work for nothing.

You would only hack machines that are purely digital. That have no paper trail to check against.

Is there evidence that this happened?

Apparently yes.

5. There seems to be a large statistical difference between counties in Wisconsin that have a purely digital system and those that use a system with a paper ballot back up. In paper ballot counties Obama won in 2012, the ballot county losses are 1–2%. However in counties Obama won in 2012 that are purely digital, she lost by 10–15%.

What could account for such a huge difference? Especially, if the counties are right next to each other? In other words, is this evidence that Russia interfered with counties in swing states where they didn’t have paper ballots to check the results?

The short answer is: We don’t know enough.

The good news is that we can know enough — eventually!

Math can be used on the existing, freely available data to show how real this correlation is.

Professional statisticians can control for other variables that might give a false correlation and say conclusively whether or not these numbers mean that the only significant difference between these counties was their skewed numbers and the type of voting machines they used.

Someone should do this analysis.

Maybe it proves this theory as just a fun meaningless internet-trash read (like, well we now know, pretty much all the election writing), or maybe not. But it seems worth doing!

It can and should be done for all the swing states.

Additionally, we also know:

6. The exit polls don’t seem to match the vote tallies. Here, Clinton is ahead in key states such as Florida.

7. The prediction polls have never been this wrong in any presidential election. ever.

The polls predicting the election were off by about 7.6 percent. However, here you can see generally it’s around 0.2 to 3%.

What does this mean? What do these numbers mean? I have no idea. On the face of it, it appears as though these numbers support the evidence of a hack. However, it is really an invitation for professionals in this field to look closely at this data.


So what have we established?

Motive. Points 1 and 2

Russia wanted to hack into the elections in favor of Donald Trump. We haven’t talked about why that is. But points 1 and 2 present strong evidence that this what they wanted to do. In other words, if they could have done it, they would have.

Pattern and practice. Point 3

Point 3 establishes how Russia has been doing this exact sort of electioneering in the recent past, but also stretching back more than fifty years. And that there has been little change in their behavior over this period.

Did they have the opportunity? Point 4

Point 4 establishes that they had a huge opportunity to do this sort of thing. Electronic voting is incredibly vulnerable.

Is there Evidence it happened?

Points 5 through 7 list possible evidence that it happened. But the take away here is that more research can be done to prove or disprove that it happened — perhaps conclusively.

PART IV: Bonus Section: Wild Speculation!

Trump’s Possible Collusion with Russia

One point I have not bothered to make, is why Russia would want Trump in office. But it doesn’t need to be made. Russia’s actions show they prefer him over Hillary Clinton. And the other reason I haven’t addressed it, is that the answers have already been supplied by many other commentators, parodied by SNL, and so forth. The list goes something like this, if you want to hear it again: Trump is wildly incompetent and the incompetence will weaken the U.S. Trump is a far right authoritarian who has only praise for Putin and has made many overtures to him. Regardless of Trump’s attitude, Hillary is an anti-Putin hawk whom Putin personally dislikes.

Then of course, there is the speculation that Trump colluded with Russia. Some people claim that Trump did not release his tax returns because they show how he was funded by Russian bankers, bailed out by them in various business deals.

As promised, I believe my argument above lays out the case for the hacking without involving any collusion with the Trump campaign.

In fact, if I were Russia, I wouldn’t want to involve the Trump campaign. Why would you? It only increases the risk you would be found out. And you don’t actually need their help to carry out the hack as described above.

However, Manafort’s above stated deep ties to a Russian-sponsored dictator can’t go without mention. Manafort specialized in these sort of dirty tricks when he worked for other petty dictators. Though Manafort had to leave Trump’s campaign after the Russian bribes with his name on them came to light, he still lives in Trump tower, and it’s very likely he is advising Trump in an unofficial capacity.

The original post I linked at the beginning of this article, brings up the interesting idea that one of these classic dirty tricks is claiming the other side “rigged” the election to conceal the fact that your side is in fact rigging the election.

If the hack did take place, is the FBI investigating it and not telling us?

Here’s a CNN panel discussing that very thing.

The answer is, maybe. The FBI has been notoriously pro-Trump throughout the election. FBI director Comey’s November surprise re-opening of the email inquiry into Clinton could be considered an example of this behavior. And we are living in the sort of dystopian future where people are legitimately considering whether OUR security apparatus threw our elections — not Russia’s!

But Comey may also be one of the few of the exceptions to the predominantly pro-Trump FBI. By many accounts he is something of a boy scout, who announced the (re)investigation out of a myopic and vain sense of professionalism. If that’s the case, let’s hope the FBI’s professionalism and patriotism trumps (sorry) their politics, and they are investigating this possibility, if it seems likely enough to them. After all, they have policy that they don’t comment on ongoing investigations, except, er, the Clinton one. Is your head spinning yet?

Yeah, but really?

Lastly, as you may have gathered, I am not a Trump supporter. Trump first rose to political prominence by de-legitimizing the legal right for Obama to be president, touting what was a (proven dead wrong) racist conspiracy theory about birth certificates. I recognize this appears like someone on the radical left (me) trying to de-legitimize Trump’s presidency through a conspiracy theory.

However, I hope I have shown how this idea is categorically different. There are legitimate present and historical arguments which support it as a possibility. The Department of Homeland Security took the possibility seriously. Senators and the New York Times, are asking for an investigation. Science and research can prove it right or wrong.