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Governor: Russians Hacked 2018 Election in Two Florida Counties

Voter databases in two Florida counties were accessed by Russian hackers before the 2016 presidential election, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis – who is otherwise keeping mum for now.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, DeSantis said the reason why those counties got affected is not necessarily the counties but a private vendor they were using. The hackers gained access through a spear-phishing email after a worker clicked a link.

But which two counties? DeSantis said he’s not at liberty to say, having signed a non-disclosure agreement with the FBI.

“The two counties at issue here the FBI was working with them in 2016,” said DeSantis. “They just asked me not to name the two counties for whatever reason, so I’m respecting that. But this was something that the counties knew about prior to the 2016 election.”

Officials from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were briefed by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security last week. DeSantis says the hackers did not manipulate data, and the election results were not compromised.

Credit Florida Governor's Office
Gov. Ron DeSantis

“So I think that if we name the counties, then that may reveal information to the perpetrators that we know kind of what we did – but you’d have to ask [the FBI],” said the Governor. “I think it should be named; in one of the Mueller indictments for these Russian folks this is one of the things that’s mentioned in the indictment. Now, they didn’t say ‘Florida,’ but they did say they were referring to this incident.”

“We [Escambia County] were certainly not identified as a county that had any type of intrusion; an it’s my understanding that these counties that are the subject, have in fact received some type of notification,” says David Stafford, Escambia County’s Elections Supervisor.

Stafford believes this episode highlights the need for a better way to communicate such information across the board among the various levels of election structure. How it’s played out so far, he says, is not how it’s supposed to work.

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Sen. Bill Nelson visits the UWF Cybersecurity Center in 2016.

“How is it supposed to work? I think that’s still something that needs to be addressed and decided,” Stafford says. “Because there are instances where that granular level of detail about a specific incident, you wouldn’t want to run out and shout it from the mountaintops; but at the same time you want to be as transparent as possible.”

Perhaps a silver lining in all this is the fact that Florida votes statewide on paper ballots — you can’t hack them — which can always ensure results are accurate if there's a proper audit. Stafford says Florida has used optical-scan paper ballots, which other states are now just beginning to install.

“We have 22-month [ballot] retention; we audit after every election,” says Stafford. “We do pre-election testing, we have layers and layers and layers of security built in. If there are issues, we have the paper record of votes cast in our election.”

One person who apparently wasn't aware of the Russian interference was DeSantis' predecessor, now-Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.

“It was the position of people who were in the agencies at the time – and they’re still serving – that the FBI did not brief them on this, and that this was something that they knew was going on,” DeSantis said. “The FBI’s position is that there were members on the FBI task force, who had access to some of the information.”

Credit npr.org
Former FL Governor and now U.S. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL)

During the 2018 campaign Scott criticized his opponent, incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, for saying Russians had hacked elections systems and had "free rein to move about" ahead of last year's midterm.

“[Nelson] was clear that it was happening; then when he was asked for details he said, ‘oh, it’s classified,’” Scott said on Fox News Channel last year. “So, one of two things is happening; either he simply made it up, or he’s released classified information.”

Nelson said at the time that he and Florida’s now-senior Senator, Republican Marco Rubio, urged the state’s 67 county elections offices to add more layers of protection to the process.

“Every intelligence agency in the United States government has said that [the Russians] are going to try to disrupt the 2018 elections, just like they did in 2016,” said Nelson last year.

After Nelson's comments, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint letter that they saw no signs of any "new or ongoing compromises" of state or local election systems. But some experts warn hackers could have left malware on computer systems to be triggered later. That’s where beefed-up electronic scrutiny comes in, says Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“My sense is that we have the ability to do this,” said DeSantis. “The information flow is important; there’s things we have to address. We just need to know that we have to address them; and if we know we have to address them, it makes it a lot easier.”

The mention that Russian hackers had accessed Florida networks came as a surprise to many in the state. Okaloosa County Supervisor Paul Lux,  president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections,  tells NPR that he hadn’t “heard even a whisper.”