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State voter registration systems have not been hacked, officials say

A viral article in a Russian newspaper prompted claims that voter registration databases has been hacked this year.

Federal and state officials said Tuesday that despite fears to the contrary, there's no evidence that any state's voter registration database has been hacked this year.

A viral article in the Russian newspaper Kommersant claimed that a user on a Russian hacker forum had acquired the personal information of 7.6 million voters in Michigan and other voters in several other states, prompting claims that they had recently been hacked.

But all that information was already publicly available, multiple officials said.

"Voter information in Michigan and elsewhere is accessible to anyone through a FOIA request," Tracy Wimmer, a spokesperson for Michigan's State Department, said in a statement, referring to the Freedom of Information Act. "Our system has not been hacked.

Image: Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks in support of the United States Postal Service (USPS) outside of a post office in Detroit
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks in support of the United States Postal Service in Detroit, Michigan, on Aug. 18, 2020.Rebecca Cook / Reuters file

"We encourage all Michigan voters to be wary of attempts to 'hack' their minds, however, by questioning the sources of information and advertisements they encounter and seeking out trusted sources," she said.

The FBI and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which provides states with election security protections, issued a joint statement saying they hadn't seen cyberattacks on election infrastructure in 2020 and noting that "a lot of voter registration data is publicly available or easily purchased."

Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill also put out a statement Tuesday noting that the data purported to have been leaked can easily be purchased legally for $300.

Some of the material, reviewed by NBC News, was information that was already public. A thorough review conducted by the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found nothing that wasn't already publicly available, company spokesperson Caitlin Mattingly said.

It's realistic that a Russian election interference campaign would target voter registration data. Reports by the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee and special counsel Robert Mueller's office found that in 2016, Russian military officers found a gaping security hole in the Illinois voter registration database and proceeded to download its contents.

While some may find it unnerving that many states make such voter information public or easily accessible, the information is already publicly available in most cases, said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit that works to improve election administration.

"This story comes up every year, and every year that basic voter info remains public," Becker said via text message. "I could see a good argument for making it private, but just because this basic info is publicly available isn't evidence of hacking, any more than if Russia had a copy of the white pages (for those that remember what that is!)"