Two Florida counties were hacked in 2016 election, says Gov. DeSantis

While vote tallies weren't affected, Russian hackers had access to voter databases.

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2 min read
Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: "There was no manipulation or anything."

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Russian hackers hit not one, but two Florida voter databases during the 2016 US presidential election, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday.

Previously, law enforcement officials warned that states like Illinois and Arizona had their voter databases breached. Special counsel Robert Mueller's report concluded that Russian hackers had also infiltrated Florida's voter databases during the election

The Florida governor clarified that no votes were manipulated and election results weren't altered.

"Two Florida counties experienced intrusion into the supervisor of election networks," DeSantis said at a press conference Tuesday. "There was no manipulation or anything, but there was voter data that was able to be got. Now, that voter data was public anyway, nevertheless, those were intrusions. It did not affect any voting or anything like that."

Election security has become a major concern for US lawmakers in the wake of cyberattacks during the 2016 presidential election. While the Department of Homeland Security stressed no votes were altered during the 2016 and 2018 elections, experts have found that the votes don't need to be changed for a successful attack on democracy. And with access to voter registration databases, foreign attackers are better positioned to try to undermine people's trust and confidence in voting. 

The DHS has ramped up its efforts to improve cybersecurity for election officials, with a focus on local counties for the 2020 election. These efforts would have directly benefited counties like the two in Florida that suffered the hack. Local counties are often the most vulnerable to these hacks because they're limited in expertise and resources, while they're an essential part of the electoral process.

Votes from Election Day weren't affected, but the attackers were able to alter voter registration data. That could mean people who were eligible to vote might not have shown up in the system when they arrived at their polling place.

DeSantis, state election officials and law enforcement officials learned about the breach during an FBI briefing on Friday. The governor isn't able to disclose the counties affected because of an agreement signed with the FBI. DeSantis' office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The hackers gained access to Florida's election databases through spearphishing emails, the same method Russian hackers used to infiltrate the Democratic National Committee's servers.

In August, then-Florida Sen. Bill Nelson warned that Russian hackers had access to the state's voter registration systems, which election officials, as well as the DHS, denied. 

Originally published May 14, 10:22 a.m. PT.
Update, 11:24 a.m. PT: To include more details on the Florida counties hack.