Back in the day, Russians were like the Antichrist to Republicans. Today they appear thick as thieves, both seemingly involved in a two-front, rigged-election war to blow up the black vote. A Trump presidency catapulted by angry, white populism is already a scary thought.
But as bad as that is, consider the possibility of the most significant election in three generations being bootlegged by a combination of GOP tinkering with voting rights and Russian sabotage of American electronic-voting systems.
While Republican state legislatures are busily passing voter-ID requirements in response to a fictional fraud crisis, or eliminating early voting and erecting any number of creative barriers for black and brown millennial and senior voters, Republican governors are shutting down motor vehicle offices in black counties or closing up polling stations.
Since 2010, that’s culminated into voter-ID laws in 31 states and freshly baked systematic voting restrictions this presidential year in 14 states—everything from no early vote to curtailed absentee ballots and fewer places to vote. Watch big election-battleground states like Pennsylvania, where Republicans will unleash obstructive “poll watchers” to actively profile and intimidate key voting blocs.
Simultaneously, on a cyber-instigated Eastern front, Kremlin-backed hackers are reportedly looking for ways to manipulate this American election. Doing so entails disrupting voting databases and digital processes in states full of black and brown voters more likely to vote Democratic, since Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a fan of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Of course, there’s no evidence of any formal evil alliance between the Republican Party and the Kremlin. But it is mighty convenient how their interests converge these days into one nicely packaged political bromance. Each is engaged in some form of Election Day trickery that has one theme in common: keeping black voter turnout as low as possible.
The cozy alignment of Republican and Russian political interests is probably not what GOP nominee Donald Trump meant when he suggested we’d be in for a “rigged election.” But if there’s anything rigged happening, mounting evidence is pointing in that direction.
Nearly 40 years ago, Republicans got “the great communicator,” B-list actor Ronald Reagan, elected on the strength of collective American hate for (and fear of) the “Soviet empire.” At that time, Russians were sickle-and-hammer bad guys hell-bent on global Communist domination (translation: the other competing neocolonial power on the block).
That summed up our cynical worldview that our planet was on the cusp of nuclear obliteration; not to mention an endless cinematic catalog of Cold War propaganda in which psychopathic commandos and misogynistic fighter pilots routinely killed Russian soldiers for sport. Republicans gleefully force-fed us the “evil empire” trope till the Berlin Wall fell.
Today, however, in a head-exploding plot twist, the GOP’s presidential team loves them some police-state Russian junta. Since both presidential nominee Donald Trump and running mate Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) regularly use Putin as the supreme-leadership model while throwing thinly veiled black-people-can’t-run-things bigotry at President Barack Obama, few—if any—prominent conservatives have called them on it. Trump is well-known for doubling down on publicly telegraphed love notes to the once-wily Soviet secret-police agent, and he’s already said he hoped that Moscow had hacked Hillary Clinton’s server in order to release her deleted emails.
Shortly thereafter, suspected Russian cyber intrusions effectively took out the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee—a chief GOP political rival and road-blocker to the White House. And now, strangely enough, both FBI Director James Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson confirm that there’s a lot more to it: State-sponsored Russian hackers appear actively engaged in breaching voting systems, registries and databases in nearly 20 states.
Russians are suspected in breaching voter-registration databases in Arizona and Illinois, the former a sudden battleground state for Republicans scared of a Latino-voter uprising and the latter state holding large black populations needed to unseat GOP incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk in a Democratic bid to retake the Senate majority.
Faced with imminent demographic doom, Republicans have been doing some election hacking of their own, although, instead of using technology, they’re ignoring a declining voting infrastructure and using legislation to limit voting rights.
Bad enough that America’s voting infrastructure is woefully underfunded and dangerously outdated as is. There hasn’t been a real investment in voting-machine technology since the federal government, embarrassed by the paper-ballot Florida fiasco of 2000, halfheartedly dropped more than $2 billion into electoral modernization.
Since then, however, it just hasn’t been a priority in Washington, and many Republican-led state legislatures have put more energy and cash into cooking up a faux voting-fraud crisis than securing our ability to exercise that most sacred right: voting.
As the Brennan Center’s Christopher Famighetti tells The Root: “In November, 42 states will be using voting machines that are over 10 years old. Thirteen states will be using machines 15 years or older. That’s close to the end of most voting systems' life span.
“We wouldn’t expect our desktop or laptop to last for 10 years,” he adds.
Dusty voting machines for the world’s leading democracy present the feds with some horrific scenarios, thereby making Trump’s claim of a rigged election almost prescient (if not a veiled admission of guilt). All five states that rely completely on touchscreen voting—Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina—have massive black populations, with many that would prove critical in close presidential and down-ballot races (Georgia is becoming one such state, for example).
Other important battlegrounds, like Pennsylvania and Virginia, where black voters will make the decisive difference, house counties with totally paperless voting systems. And many of those 20 states vulnerable (pdf) to Russian hacking are the same places where Republican state legislators and governors have gradually chiseled away at voter access.
“Many of our government processes, including elections, rely on digital systems that must be adequately secured at each stage in the process,” warns Carbon Black’s Ben Johnson. Yet the shared failure of state legislatures and a Congress hostile to voting rights to do just that—despite calls to treat our voting machines like critical infrastructure—proves that it’s all about the win for some … even if it means taking us back 50 years while they're at it.
Make sure you protect your vote in this critical election for America. Learn more about how to register and protect your vote here.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.