Federal Government Tells Twenty-One States Their Election Systems Were Targeted By Hackers

More evidence of apparent Russian-backed efforts to interfere in the election.

Election Hacking

The Federal Government has notified twenty-one states that their election systems were the targets of hacking in advance of the 2016 elections:

WASHINGTON — The federal government on Friday told election officials in 21 states that hackers targeted their systems before last year’s presidential election.

The notification came roughly a year after officials with the United States Department of Homeland Security first said states were targeted by hacking efforts possibly connected to Russia. The states that told The Associated Press they had been targeted included some key political battlegrounds, such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The A.P. contacted every state election office to determine which ones had been informed that their election systems had been targeted. The others that confirmed they were targeted were Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Washington.

Being targeted does not mean that sensitive voter data was manipulated or that results were changed. A hacker targeting a system without getting inside is similar to a burglar circling a house, checking for unlocked doors and windows.

Even so, the widespread nature of the attempts and the yearlong lag time in notification from the Department of Homeland Security raised concerns among some election officials and lawmakers.

For many states, the calls on Friday were the first official confirmation that they were on the list — even though state election officials across the country have been calling for months for the federal government to share information about any hacks, as have members of Congress.

“It is completely unacceptable that it has taken D.H.S. over a year to inform our office of Russian scanning of our systems, despite our repeated requests for information,” California’s secretary of state, Alex Padilla, a Democrat, said in a statement. “The practice of withholding critical information from elections officials is a detriment to the security of our elections and our democracy.”

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on a committee that is investigating Russian meddling in last year’s election, has been pushing the department for months to reveal the identities of the targeted states. He said states need such information in real time so that they can strengthen their cyber defenses.

“We have to do better in the future,” he said.

The Department of Homeland Security said it recognized that state and local officials should be kept informed about cybersecurity risks to election infrastructure.

“We are working with them to refine our processes for sharing this information while protecting the integrity of investigations and the confidentiality of system owners,” the department said in a statement.

The government did not say who was behind the hacking attempts or provide details about what had been sought. But election officials in several states said the attempts were linked to Russia.

The Wisconsin Election Commission, for example, said the state’s systems were targeted by “Russian government cyber actors.” Josie Bahnke, Alaska’s elections division director, said computers in Russia were scanning election systems looking for vulnerabilities.

A spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State said the group had requested a list of the states where there were hacking efforts. In most cases, states said they were told the systems were not breached.

Federal officials said that in most of the 21 states the targeting was preparatory activity such as scanning computer systems.

The targets included voter registration systems but not vote-tallying software. Officials said there were some attempts to compromise networks, but most were unsuccessful.

As the article goes on to note, it’s generally believed both by Federal authorities and by the state agencies that oversee elections in the various states that the entities that attempted to hack into their system were based in Russia and/or connected to Russian government agencies. This would be consistent with all of the other reporting we’ve seen over the course of this year regarding Russian attempts to interference in the election in manners such as apparently being behind the hacking of the email systems of the Democratic National Committee and the email of top Clinton adviser Tony Podesta and the selective leaking of the contents of those systems in a manner that was clearly designed to attack the Clinton campaign. It can also be seen in the recent reports of groups apparently linked to Russia being behind the creation of hundreds or possibly even thousands of Facebook newsgroups designed to spread fake news and memes attacking Hillary Clinton and boosting the candidacy of Donald Trump. Given that we know the Russians behind this, it makes sense that they’d at least attempt to hack into the computer systems operated by state agencies that regulate and run the election itself.

Writing about this story at Hot Air, Jazz Shaw seems skeptical if not dismissive:

So does this suddenly “vindicate” all of the Clinton supporters who still think that there’s no way that Trump could have possibly won? Were the reported election results fraudulent? Not even remotely. In fact, the report specifically states that this, “does not mean that sensitive voter data was manipulated or results were changed.” They go on to compare it to burglars circling the neighborhood looking for unlocked windows and doors, but not actually getting into anyone’s home.

While these points are well taken, it’s worth noting that this doesn’t really diminish the seriousness of what happened here. For one thing, most of the people who have been calling for a thorough investigation of the extent of Russian attempts to interfere with the Presidential election and the question of whether or not anyone close to the Trump campaign was in contact with Russian officials have not made the claim that such interference actually changed the outcome of the election. There are perhaps some people who have made that claim, but in my experience, these are typically people who haven’t paid any real attention to the news reports, and who don’t support Donald Trump, and who are still carrying a grudge over the outcome of the election. In reality, we don’t and probably can’t know the actual impact that all the Russians efforts to interfere in the election had on the outcome, but that’s not really the point. The point is that the effort was made at all, that it is apparently consistent with Russian efforts to interfere in elections in other parts of the world such as in various European nations, especially in Eastern European nations that used to be part of the Soviet orbit and, most recently, in France during their Presidential election. The fact that this is becoming a common Russian tactic is the problem, not the question of whether or not that interference has any impact on the outcome of the election.

Additionally, the fact that attempts were made to attack the integrity of the election databases of nearly half the states in the United States is a serious matter that deserves serious attention from Federal and state law enforcement, as well as an investigation by Congress and the appropriate agencies at the state level. Even if it’s true that most or even all of these attempts were unsuccessful, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be future attempts that could be more aggressive and end up being successful. Given that, it’s important for news like this to be shared and for the American people to demand some answers from both Federal and state authorities about what is being done to protect those systems and ensure the integrity of future elections. For example, what if it could be proven that some of these attempts had been successful and that it resulted in data being tampered with that could have an impact on the election? What would be the reaction then? More than likely it would result in chaos, uncertainty, and even more political polarization, which it strikes me as being exactly what the Russians want.

There are legitimate questions that need to be asked here, of course, such as why it’s taken so long for Federal authorities to notify the states of this hacking and for the public to find out about it. Now that we know, though, it’s clear that the matter needs to be thoroughly investigated so that we can do as much as we can to prevent it from happening again and prevent it from being successful the next time.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    I think it absolutely is relevant whether the outcome was changed. Trump is either president by grace of Vladimir Putin or by the votes of the American people. He is either legitimate or not. If not he should resign and take Mike Pence with him and install Paul Ryan, that’s what an honorable man would do.

    No, of course I don’t ever expect Trump to do the right or honorable thing. Nor do I expect anything but delusion, lies and hypocrisy from his supporters.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    Jazz Shaw’s comment seems to be the usual goal post shifting. It’s all OK unless the Russians are proven to have actually changed vote tabulations. And if we did find the Russians had changed vote tallies it would still be OK because … reasons.

  3. Modulo Myself says:

    In 2004 in Ohio this happened:

    A new filing in the King Lincoln Bronzeville v. Blackwell case includes a copy of the Ohio Secretary of State election production system configuration that was in use in Ohio’s 2004 presidential election when there was a sudden and unexpected shift in votes for George W. Bush.

    The filing also includes the revealing deposition of the late Michael Connell. Connell served as the IT guru for the Bush family and Karl Rove. Connell ran the private IT firm GovTech that created the controversial system that transferred Ohio’s vote count late on election night 2004 to a partisan Republican server site in Chattanooga, Tennessee owned by SmarTech. That is when the vote shift happened, not predicted by the exit polls, that led to Bush’s unexpected victory. Connell died a month and a half after giving this deposition in a suspicious small plane crash.

    Was it fraud? Democrats trust the system and they don’t challenge any outcome. Republicans believe in that poor black people routinely commit voter fraud. I’d say it’s projection, and that Trump is going to get nailed on this. I’m curious if it will stick though.

  4. george says:


    There’s a difference between okay and legitimate. Russia interfering (without changing votes) is definitely not okay, but its what super powers do – is there a single ‘super power’ in history that hasn’t played that game? And of course, its always been grounds for retaliation. In fact some Russians will say this is just retaliation for what happened with Yeltsin, tho’ my take is that tit-for-tat game has been in the go since the cold war started.

    But if they changed the vote totals, then the whole election is void and should be redone. That’s a major difference.

  5. Becca says:

    I’ve always felt the “voter fraud” angle was just the GOP’s shiny object to distract from them attempting to (or actually stealing) elections. With or without Russian involvement.

  6. Hal_10000 says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    There’s as much evidence to support this as there is the GOP theory that Ohio was stolen in 2012: much noise about “irregularities”; no actual evidence. Bush won the exit polls. Bush won by over 100k votes in the tallies. Counties went about as expected. And far from blithely accepting results, Democrats demanded a recount and challenged the electoral votes in Congress.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    Imagine the reaction from Republicans if these kind of shenanigans were conducted in 2008 or in 2012 and such actions may or may not have helped elect Obama…meanwhile, at the Orange Mange’s latest disgrace of a political rally, he says, “No, Russia did not help me.” Uh huh…there’s going to come a time when Robert Mueller will reveal the results of all that he and his legal team have been doing and when that time comes, a lot of people are going to have to make a decision about how much they really care about democracy…

  8. Paul Hooson says:

    She wasn’t even a first choice of mine, and I really don’t like her very much at all, and the Clintons are scandal prone, but our country would have been so much better off with Hillary Clinton right now and respected by other nations instead of being laughed at or scorned. Mr. Trump has been much worse than I ever expected and simply unfit for the job, where he has not grown into the job as I hoped.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @ Doug:

    such as why it’s taken so long for Federal authorities to notify the states of this hacking

    Why? Let me answer that question with another question: Who’s their boss? That question answers itself.

    @An Interested Party:

    a lot of people are going to have to make a decision about how much they really care about democracy…

    Sad to say, about 37% of the American electorate already have.

  10. CSK says:

    @Paul Hooson:

    I had no expectation Trump would grow into the role, and I was right. North Korea has just said that a nuclear strike on the U.S. is “inevitable,” and Trump’s response is to…fight with the NFL.

  11. JKB says:

    Funny thing is, DHS was the only organization caught hacking state election systems. Guess they were busier than we heard.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JKB: FAKE NEWS!!! FAKE NEWS!!! You are so stupid I am shocked, shocked I tell you, that you can breathe. You have outsourced your thinking to Roger Ailes’ zombie farts. Really, get your head out of FOX News’ arse hole.

  13. DrDaveT says:


    Why? Let me answer that question with another question: Who’s their boss? That question answers itself.

    No, sorry, that’s not how it works. Most federal employees couldn’t care less (at least in terms of their own jobs) who is in the White House, and they tend to think of elected officials and political appointees as “the temps”.

    A much more likely explanation is that DHS is a completely dysfunctional agency, underfunded and understaffed for its missions, and still trying to recover from having been originally implemented as the Agency of Misfit Toys in the first place.

  14. Tyrell says:

    How about the people who voted twice and the dead people who voted?

  15. michael reynolds says:

    Those are lies you’ve been told by Trump to make you distrust the system – the system he himself perverted – and buy his absurd lie that he won the popular vote. It’s not even a good lie, it’s a lie pitched at the moron level because it is instantly falsifiable.

    Stop with Breitbart and Limbaugh and Fox News. Have you not noticed that EVERY time you show up here touting one of their supposed ‘facts’ you get your head handed to you? How many times do you have to be lied to before you wake the fwck up dude?

  16. Carol Johnson says:

    Every time I hear that the vote tabulation itself wasn’t hacked, I’m thinking: Russians spent millions on intrusion, voter manipulation, hacking the DNC. What makes you think they would make such a massive effort and somehow just leave it all to chance on Election Day? If a few tweaks here and there guarantees a win, why stop at these efforts? Personally, I think there was some tabulation jiggling as well.

    Which brings me to the other question. What was so bad about the old pencil and paper way of elections? Yes, it was a bit slower, but there were no expensive machines to hack or maintain. Provided the counters themselves weren’t corrupted, there was an honest count that could be repeated in case of a dispute. Pen and paper was also cheap, and counting could be done by volunteers. Why leave it up to vendors?

  17. george says:

    @michael reynolds:


    If he were clever (something no one has seriously accused him of being) he’d just add the third party votes to his total, since so many people have been saying a vote for Johnson or Stein was a vote for Trump.

    More seriously, at this point it doesn’t seem like either hacking or voting fraud changed the numbers (not for lack of trying no doubt, but there simply is no evidence of it happening), so for him to suggest it is his usual throwing BS around and seeing how much of it sticks.

  18. george says:

    @Carol Johnson:

    I’m sure they tried. As they no doubt tried changing votes via one way or another all the way through the cold war (and vice-versa); superspowers influencing (or trying to influence) other countries’ elections probably started with the first elections back in ancient Greece.

    However trying isn’t necessarily the same thing as succeeding. The ‘Manchurian candidate’ theme has been thrown around for decades, but actual proof has never appeared. Same as the illegal voter theme – so far no evidence that its changed actual voting numbers.

    Paper ballots on the other hand make huge sense. Canada still uses them, and the whole argument by scale as never made sense. You still break the counting into person-size blocks, and if you have ten times the population you also have ten times the counters, so the ratio of counters/votes remains the same.

    Its interesting that the rank and file of neither D’s or R’s like or trust voting machines, but the party leaders in both cases like them.

  19. Matt says:

    @Tyrell: The only cases of dead people voting that I’ve seen anyone actually show as having happened were people who voted early then died before the election day.

    I’m more then open to you providing any other examples.

    As for the voting twice thing.. Well it was a Trump voter.


  20. Matt says:

    @Tyrell: Do some math sometime. Trump won one of the smallest victories in a presidential election in known history. He won due to 70k votes in three states. To get 70k extra votes one double vote a time would require 70,000 people double voting. 70,000 people willing to spend hours in line to commit a very serious federal crime.