By Nick Reynolds, Casper Star-Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — In 2016, the Russian government successfully hacked America’s elections.
It hijacked messaging, assisted certain candidates and, in some cases, even managed to breach a state’s voter registration system.
With the 2020 election approaching, states around the country are working diligently to avoid further influence in their elections, doing everything from upgrading their voting systems to taking a magnifying glass to their own practices in-house.
But election interference, according to the nonpartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Head of Research Jessica Brandt, is not just about voter fraud or computer hacking: it’s about messaging as well.
Beyond the physical infiltration of voting systems across the nation, the Russian government infiltrated its psyche as well, taking control of popular narratives on both the right and the left to sow disorder, undermine fact and redirect public opinion to suit its objectives.
For the past several months, the alliance has worked to develop tools to track the source of those narratives, creating an online dashboard to track Russian propaganda in real-time as well as a tool called the Information Operations Archive: a search engine allowing researchers and members of the public to track the spread of information used to influence public opinion.
While it’s not always apparent, exploitative messaging can intertwine very closely with election integrity, Brandt said. Disinformation is one of the primary tools used to do that.
“It’s really detrimental to democracy, and something that they’ve tried again and again,” said Brandt.
At the local level, Brandt said that it’s critical for the public to carefully analyze the messages they receive to discern whether the messages they’re receiving and basing their opinions on are merely ideological, or something more sinister.
“One of the things I worry about in 2020 is perception hacking or false-flag operations that could weaponize our expectation there might be interference,” said Brandt, noting the fact Russia infiltrated Illinois’ voter rolls but chose to make no changes. “It puts us in a position to question the outcome of the election. You don’t have to change a single vote to create the impression that you did, and that is extraordinarily damaging.”
In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan maintained Wyoming is sufficiently equipped to combat voter fraud, a point underscored in a press release last election day outlining all of the safeguards the state’s elections system had in place.
“Wyoming’s citizens will be given every possible opportunity to cast a ballot because Wyoming elections are run with the utmost integrity from beginning to end,” Buchanan said at the time. “On Election Day voters can be confident in election procedures that protect our right to vote and the confidentiality of our ballots. And every voter can be confident that their vote will be counted and counted accurately — one person, one vote, no exceptions.”
However, Wyoming — according to the experts — could still do better. A February 2018 report from the Center for American Progress gave Wyoming’s election systems a “C” grade due to its lack of a post-election audit process and a number of increasingly obsolete voting machines in need of replacement.
Recently, though, Wyoming has made significant strides toward improving its grade.
After the Secretary of State’s office launched an effort with county clerks to evaluate voting equipment in 2017, which was taken on after then-secretary Ed Murray declined to join a White House-led commission to investigate allegations of voter fraud, the Wyoming Legislature voted last session to appropriate $7.5 million into an election readiness account intended, primarily, to upgrade outdated voting equipment all over the state. That amount was bolstered by $3 million in federal funding allocated in 2018 by the Trump administration.