Russia Could Hack 2020 Election, Too, Report Says—39 States Hit in 2016

Sources claim Russian hackers affected 39 states in 2016’s election and could use the information to hack 2020’s election as well. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration

The 2016 elections may have just been the beginning.

Russian hackers attacked voter databases and software systems in 39 states during last year's elections, and authorities fear that while the tampering may not have affected vote totals, it's possible Russia learned enough from the attacks to put 2020's presidential election in its crosshairs, sources with knowledge of the U.S. investigation told Bloomberg.

The report, published Tuesday morning, said Illinois investigators discovered that hackers attempted to delete or alter voter data in the state's voter database. (California and Florida were the only other states directly mentioned.) The Illinois database held some 15 million names—half were active voters—and 90,000 records were potentially compromised.

While there appears to be no evidence that the hackers were able to affect the election's outcome, likely because they did not have enough time to fully process and understand the country's entire voting system, a senior U.S. official told Bloomberg about fears that Russia could hone what it learned over the next three-and-a-half years and that "there is every reason to believe" 2020's election could be a future target.

Another theory is that Russia didn't completely go for the election's throat because of warnings issued by President Barack Obama. During September's G-20 summit, Obama said he told Russian President Vladimir Putin to "knock off" the hacking attempts, but the leaks of Democratic National Committee emails continued, according to NBC News.

Putin has consistently denied Russia hacked the election, but earlier this month stated he could not rule out "patriotic" Russians conducting some kind of hacking effort.

Then, Obama reached out on October 31 via the "Red Phone"—the direct link between the superpowers that has evolved over the last 50 or so years—and used the term "armed conflict" to reinforce the gravity of the tense situation.

In early October, the U.S. intelligence community, made up of 17 agencies, said in a statement that it was "confident" the Russian government had comprised emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.

Nevertheless, much of the alleged damage had already been done last summer. In July 2016, a contractor working for the Illinois state board of elections first detected data "leaving the network." Voter information goes from the counties to the state, not the other way around, and while the hacking may not have affected the election, Illinois's online voter registration applications are processed at the state level.

Investigators then used the perceived attack against the state to test the rest of the country. They found the hacker's digital signatures and then sent them around the U.S,, and 37 states found the signatures in some of their systems.

The recent disclosures come after 25-year-old federal contractor Reality Winner allegedly leaked a classified NSA document to The Intercept. Winner is facing charges from the Department of Justice for releasing the report, which detailed exactly how Russian hackers attempted to gain access to the U.S. election and voting infrastructure.