Future Tense

Homeland Security Official: “Small Number” of State Election Systems “Successfully Penetrated” in 2016

NORTH LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 08:  A voter casts a ballot at a voting machine at a polling station at Cheyenne High School on Election Day on November 8, 2016 in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Americans across the nation are picking their choice for the next president of the United States.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
It’s looking more and more like Russia mucked with some states’ election systems in 2016. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When it comes to Russia meddling with U.S. elections, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a Fox News interview Tuesday, “I don’t know that I would say we are better prepared, because the Russians will adapt as well. … [I]f it’s their intention to interfere, they are going to find ways to do that. We can take steps we can take but this is something that, once they decide they are going to do it, it’s very difficult to preempt it.”

Just how difficult that will be was demonstrated Wednesday, when we learned new information about Russian efforts to access state voter registration systems.

Even before Election Day, reports circulated that hackers had “targeted” the voter registration systems of “at least 20” states. Last summer, Bloomberg took that story a step further, reporting that Russians hackers had targeted 39 state election databases, and in September, the Department of Homeland Security alerted 21 states that their systems had been among those at least eyed by the Russians.

Now, Jeanette Manfra, the head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, has told NBC News that “an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated” by Russian agents. “Exceptionally small number” is not a terribly exact description, but we did already know that there were security breaches in at least Arizona and Illinois. (In the case of Arizona, the Washington Post said it was “sort of breached.”)

It’s unclear what Russians might have done with the access to Americans’ voter information, but NBC reports that there is no evidence that any of the registration rolls were changed. That means it’s unlikely that the Russians took anyone’s name off the voter rolls, but it’s possible the databases changed in other ways, like using the voter information to target ads to individuals in contentious states, for example.

After Trump won the 2016 election that November, the Obama-appointed director of the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, issued an order deeming all national election systems, like voting machines and voting registration databases, part of the country’s “critical infrastructure,” like the power grid and banks. That ostensibly means that election systems fall under the protection of Department of Homeland Security, but, according to the NBC report, many states that the Department of Homeland Security named as having been targeted have still not received details about what happened or help from the federal government to secure their systems. Manfra assured NBC that the DHS would help every state’s election system eventually.

Still, with midterm elections only about nine months away, many states probably wouldn’t mind knowing exactly what happened in 2016.