Florida election officials say they have "zero information" about a threat of Russian hacking in the midterm election, after Senator Bill Nelson claimed the Ruskies have already penetrated the election systems of some counties.
Nelson, the lone statewide elected Democrat in Republican-dominated Florida, is facing a tough electoral battle against Governor Rick Scott, who is term-limited and wants to take Nelson's seat in the US Senate come November. This week the incumbent senator added some spycraft thrills to the race by claiming that the Russians were not only an ever-lurking threat to democracy in the US and Florida, but actually have already penetrated the state election infrastructure.
"They have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about," Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times before a campaign event in Tampa. He made a similar claim a day earlier in Tallahassee but declined to elaborate, stating that the information was classified.
Nelson and Florida's other senator, Marco Rubio, wrote a letter to the 67 county election supervisors, warning about the cyber-threat to the midterms and advising that security be ramped up. Speaking to the newspaper on Wednesday, Nelson said they penned the letter on request of the leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which reportedly said that "the Russians are in their records."
Rubio raised the same issue in late May in a private meeting with around eight to 10 election officials, but in less defined terms, Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer told the newspaper. When asked which counties were targeted, Rubio "looked around the room and said, 'I don't believe it's anybody here,'" Latimer said. Paul Lux, the president of a statewide election supervisors' group, said Rubio's warning was so vague that it was of no practical value.
Nelson said Russian hackers may cause chaos on Election Day by erasing people from the voter rolls. "That's exactly what the Russians want to do. They want to sow chaos in our democratic institutions." Senator Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services' subcommittee on cybersecurity, previously urged the Pentagon to act on recommendations on cyber-deterrence.
Commenting on Nelson's latest remarks, Sarah Revell, the spokesperson for the Florida Department of State, said it "received zero information from Senator Nelson or his staff that support his claims".
"Additionally, the Department has received no information from the US Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that corroborates Senator Nelson's statement and we have no evidence to support these claims," she added.
Revell said that if the senator had any specific information about hacking threats, he should share it with state election officials.
Florida's counties have been spending federal money on improving the cybersecurity of election infrastructure as well as taking advice from federal law enforcement agencies on how to better address the threat. The state's reluctance to take the $19 million, which was only done in May, was a point of criticism of the governor's office.
Pinellas County election officials said after Nelson's assertion they immediately contacted the FBI, Homeland Security and other state and federal agencies in a futile attempt to find out more about it. "Our office has not seen any indication that we have had any penetration by any bad actions," office spokesman Dustin Chase said.
A number of other large counties, including Pasco, Seminole, Broward, and Miami-Dade, have issued statements saying they are not aware of any breaches.
Meanwhile, the governor's office sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee, requesting clarification on the situation.
"Let me be clear, this is a very serious charge made in a public setting without any evidence, details or any prior communication to state or local election officials in Florida," Secretary of State Ken Detzner wrote.
The claim that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election is the cornerstone of the current partisan rift in the country, with some Democrats claiming that candidate Donald Trump somehow colluded with the Kremlin to beat Hillary Clinton. Russia denies that any government-mandated interference took place.
There are no official US documents asserting that, if any meddling did in fact take place, it affected in any way the outcome of the vote. As of January 2018, 52 percent of registered Democrats believe that Russian hackers changed the vote tally, a conspiracy theory that is not backed by any evidence.
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