We'll probably never know what happened in the 2016 election. It's not in dispute that Russia "hacked" the US election system by spamming social media with mindless shitposts, but whether or not Russians were capable of changing voter rolls or election outcomes will always be the subject of conspiracy theories. In the end it was a combination of Russian voter fuckery, shady business practices, and the gullibility of ignorant elections workers that created the perfect storm of stupidity that Donald Trump rode to Washington. And it's with that that Politico takes an exhausting look back at what happened with just one company during the 2016 election.

Attempting to reconstruct what the hell went wrong in the 2016 election will make your brain bleed even before you can slam your head into the closest solid object. Politico's 6000-plus-word investigation attempts to do just that by highlighting existing public documents and non-answers from the jackasses involved.

TLDR: IF Russia was able to break into local polls and voter rolls we'll never know what they did once they got inside. People involved with investigations took their sweet-ass time, and nobody involved will admit they might have fucked up.

VR Systems is a small Florida-based software company that makes e-voting and poll book software. They contract with eight states, including Illinois, Indiana, Florida, and North Carolina. During the 2016 election, VR Systems had 14,000 systems running its EViDs (Electronic Voter Identification) poll book software. States using VR Systems software use it for everything.

Per Politico:

"You're using VR Systems from the moment you get to work until the moment you get home," Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Florida's Leon County, told me. “New voter registrations, voter moves and address transfers, name updates ... everything that you're doing to that voter or could do, you're doing through VR Systems."

VR Systems EViD software was being used in Durham County, North Carolina, in 2016. When precinct workers had trouble updating voter rolls just before Election Day they contacted VR Systems and the company was able to remotely dial in to the precinct computers. Shortly thereafter some computers began to crash, others claimed voters had already voted, and some requested voters show ID despite a July court ruling overturning the state's voter ID law. The county decided to dump the computers and use paper lists to check in voters, causing long lines of pissed off people.

Concerned about the possibility of fuckery, the county hired a local security company to poke around. The company, Protus3, concluded that everything seemed fine, though it noted 17 of the county's 227 computers were never properly wiped of old voter data before employees tried to load up new software and voter data. It also found some poll workers may have tried to sign the same voter into a poll book more than once. Protus3 couldn't conclude what happened, and Politico reports Protus3 didn't seem to have bothered following up. There's also no indication the company looked for malware, like the kind that could have been utilized by Russian hackers to gain remote access to polling software.

It's entirely possible that the old data didn't like the new data, and some metaphorical wires became crossed. The board of elections thought about doing its own investigation, but they quickly realized they didn't know what the fuck they were were doing and called DHS. Nobody at DHS decided to return the phone call until a few months ago.

Back in 2017, a young woman named Reality Winner leaked an NSA document to The Intercept that said a US company that makes voter registration software had been targeted and "likely" penetrated by Russian GRU hackers in a phishing attack. According to the Mueller Report, the hackers then began phishing for election officials in Florida. These are the same GRU hackers Robert Mueller slapped with an indictment last year, adding that the phishing emails sent to election officials contained malware. The Mueller Report goes on to say the FBI is pretty sure the GRU was able to "gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government," but nobody ever bothered to check that out either. Pouring salt on that wound is the affected software companies who don't want to admit they were the ones who fucked up and let the Russians inside.

Most of the available evidence points to VR Systems as being the company that was breached. VR Systems says they weren't aware of the breach until AFTER the Intercept piece was published (about seven months later). They say they contacted the FBI and hired a third-party to investigate, but nothing was found. DHS conducted a similar investigation and got the same results. HOWEVER, again per Politico ...

Significant questions remain about what happened in Durham and just how close the Russians actually came to hacking the 2016 election. North Carolina state election officials say Durham County's investigation was incomplete and inconclusive, and they cannot say with certainty that the problems were due to human error. Indeed, there's no indication the investigators looked for malware or even contemplated the possibility of foul play. And VR Systems bases its assertion that it was not hacked on a forensic investigation of its computers that was done by a third-party security firm nearly a year after the Russian phishing campaign—plenty of time for any Russian hackers to have erased their tracks in the meantime. There are also questions about the thoroughness of that investigation. VR Systems spoke to POLITICO about the investigation but wouldn't answer detailed questions about it or provide a copy of the forensic report that it says proves it wasn't hacked.

To summarize, the Keystone Kops investigating Russian electoral fuckery were stumped, and the geeks hired to conduct a separate investigation showed up to the crime scene late enough for the killer(s) to theoretically hide the bodies, mop the floor, and spray some air freshener on their way out. Columbo must be rolling over in his grave.

Multiple government reports have concluded that at least one election software company was hacked in 2016. There's that NSA document from The Intercept; the Mueller report; a Senate Intelligence Committee report; and an email from the National Association of Secretaries of State that "confirmed" a "third-party vendor" in Florida "experienced a breach." VR Systems won't admit the Russians caught them pissing in the wind, and there's no direct evidence to suggest they did. There's just a hell of a lot of red strings that all seem to connect to the same point on a map emblazoned with a VR Systems logo.

Russia's goal was (and still is) to sow chaos. The fact that they might have broken in raises red flags, but whether or not they actually changed anything isn't the point. Russia could have broken in for the lulz and left behind a dick pic scrawled with "Kilroy was here," but it still wouldn't change the fact that we were caught off guard and the people involved were more concerned with covering their own asses. Same as it ever was -- and maybe always will be.


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Dominic Gwinn

Dominic is a broke journalist in Chicago. You can find him in a dirty bar talking to weirdos, or in a gutter taking photos.


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