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"I voted" stickers are displayed at a voting station. Photo by Tommy Martino/Reuters

Russian hackers targeted 2016 Montana election, state official says

Montana’s top elections official said Friday that Russian hackers unsuccessfully probed the state’s election systems for weaknesses in 2016, an acknowledgment that contradicts his staff’s previous comments that Montana was not among the 21 or more states targeted.

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton wrote in his occasional newsletter that Russian agents tried to interfere with the 2016 elections and that “almost half the states (including Montana) were scanned for weaknesses in our elections systems.”

“While no votes were changed by the Russians in our 2016 election cycle, there was a clear and significant threat to our nation’s ability to conduct fair elections,” wrote Stapleton, a Republican.

Elections Director Dana Corson in March told The Associated Press in response to a 50-state survey on election security that Montana was not among states targeted by hackers in 2016. At the time, Corson declined to speak further about the state’s election security measures, saying: “We can’t discuss things with election security.”

Stapleton told the AP on Friday there was no contradiction between his assessment and Corson’s because “scanning is not hacking” and that “it comes down to how you’re interpreting ‘targeted.'”

“Scanning for weaknesses is different from attempting to hack,” Stapleton said. “We have used restraint because you don’t want to alarm people. It is also improper not to let people know that that threat exists. To find that balance, we have actually chosen to use the words that (the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) has advised us.”

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Stapleton said he could not provide details about the extent to which Russian hackers probed Montana’s elections systems, because Homeland Security officials have not fully disclosed those details to state officials. He said that he knows somebody was trying to test the systems’ capabilities, but there was no breach.

U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russia may attempt to disrupt U.S. elections again this year. The attempts to hack into the election systems of at least 21 states in 2016 did not succeed in manipulating any votes, but U.S. security agencies have said they did manage to gain access to the voter rolls in Illinois.

Stapleton said in his newsletter that his main concerns about election security include the consistent training of elections personnel throughout Montana’s 56 counties in the face of potential attacks from nations like Russia.

Stapleton denied in the interview that his statement in the newsletter on Friday was his first public acknowledgment of the state being targeted by hackers. He could not cite any past public statements, his office never issued a press release and a database search did not turn up any news reports of him addressing the matter.

“We said it wide and clear,” he said. “I don’t think anybody reported it because I don’t think anyone was interested.”