Why Did Russia Hack the Voter Rolls?

You might remember that early on when the story of Russian hacking initially broke, a big concern of the Obama administration was that they were caught hacking voter rolls. The concern was that they would try to tamper with the tallies. But according to the intelligence community, that didn’t happen.

So why did they do it in the first place? Paul Wood might have come up with the answer.

“This is a three-headed operation,” said one former official, setting out the case, based on the intelligence: Firstly, hackers steal damaging emails from senior Democrats. Secondly, the stories based on this hacked information appear on Twitter and Facebook, posted by thousands of automated “bots”, then on Russia’s English-language outlets, RT and Sputnik, then right-wing US “news” sites such as Infowars and Breitbart, then Fox and the mainstream media. Thirdly, Russia downloads the online voter rolls.

The voter rolls are said to fit into this because of “microtargeting”. Using email, Facebook and Twitter, political advertising can be tailored very precisely: individual messaging for individual voters.

“You are stealing the stuff and pushing it back into the US body politic,” said the former official, “you know where to target that stuff when you’re pushing it back.”

This would take co-operation with the Trump campaign, it is claimed.

Of course the last sentence is critical. It ties in to the testimony today of former FBI special agent Clint Watts who discussed Russia’s “active measures,” a technique “dating back to the days of the KGB and the Cold War of dispensing disinformation and propaganda in order to influence events within another country, particularly the United States.” Watts said that the reason Putin’s efforts were so prevalent and effective in the 2016 presidential election is simple – because “the Commander-in-Chief has used Russian active measures at times, against his opponents.”

The distinction between what Wood reported and Watts testified is the one remaining question. It would be one thing for Trump and his associates to pick up on Russian active measures via social media and simply pass them along. But if hacked voter rolls were used in cooperation with the Trump campaign to target active measures to individual voters, we’ve reached the bar of a “high crime or misdemeanor.”

UPDATE: This questioning from Sen. Mark Warner today indicates that he might be thinking along these lines.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.