Nelson, Scott continue sparring over election security

At Starke campaign stop, Nelson says 'foolish' to deny Russia targeting Florida

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is sticking to his comment that “Russians are in Florida’s election records,” as Gov. Rick Scott pushes for more information and questions the veracity of the claim.

While on a seven-stop tour of communities in North Florida on Tuesday, Nelson continued to talk about the impact of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. 

In Bradford County, Nelson offered Democrats in a Starke school gym reasons to vote him to a fourth term representing Florida in Washington. He also fielded questions, which included the week-long controversy about Russians interfering in Florida’s election system. 

"I think it would be foolish to think that the Russians who had been in Florida systems in 2016 -- it would be foolish to think that they're not continuing," Nelson said. 

With Nelson and Scott set to square off in the November general election for the Senate seat, Nelson’s office said Tuesday the focus needs to be on election security not personal political gain and that “it would just be wrong, shortsighted and foolish to think that Russia is not doing in Florida what it did in 2016.”

Nelson made similar comments Tuesday at his stop in Starke.

"I think it's very unfortunate that some public officials are trying to use this partisan political purposes," he said.

The statement from Nelson’s office came as Scott continued to lash out at the Democratic senator’s assertions last week about ongoing Russian meddling.

“The only conclusion I have is, one, if he does have classified information, how did he get it? Because I don’t think he’s entitled to it. And why would he release it to a reporter?” Scott said after a state Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. “Two, if it’s not true, why didn’t he just come and say it’s not true?”

Scott added there is a concern that Nelson’s statement could impact the Aug. 28 primary elections.

“We’re in the middle of a primary election, people are voting, absentee ballots are out, early voting has started in some places, and people need to know the facts, and I don’t think he’s being transparent,” Scott said.

Nelson, who is the ranking member of the U.S. Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, told reporters Aug. 7 in Tallahassee that local election officials could get help to secure their databases and records from Russian cyber-hacking, noting, “The Russians are in Florida’s election records” and that they had “penetrated” some voter-registration systems.

When pressed at the time on the issue of election-system breaches, Nelson, said details of the information remained “classified.”

Nelson told News4Jax the danger persists because federal agencies do not have access to each local county’s voter database. He said each county supervisor of election should contact the FBI, or the Department of Homeland Security.

"You have to check that. And so that's what Sen. Rubio and I suggested in our letter six weeks ago to all the supervisors," Nelson said.

Nelson had been asked in June to work with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to get elections supervisors in Florida to push for federal cyber-security assistance as a follow up to attacks on the state system in 2016. The request by leaders of the Intelligence Committee was intended to provide a more bipartisan front to the push.

In response to Nelson’s statement in Tallahassee, Secretary of State Ken Detzner first asked Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., to provide some clarification to Nelson’s comments.

Burr’s response on Friday didn’t shed light.

“While I understand your questions regarding Senator Nelson’s recent public comments, I respectfully advise you to continue engaging directly with those federal agencies responsible for notifying you of and mitigating any potential intrusions -- specifically, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Burr wrote. “Any briefings or notifications about ongoing threats would, rightfully, come from those agencies.”

Detzner, a Scott appointee, then sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FBI Director Christopher Wray asking for “an official response that confirms your previous statement that you ‘have not seen any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure’ and reaffirms your commitment to sharing any future knowledge of potential threats to Florida’s voting systems.”

Detzner in the letter to the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI noted that voting has already started in Florida for the primary elections.

“To the best of our knowledge and the knowledge of our federal partners, Florida’s voting systems and elections databases remain secure and there has been no intrusion of the Florida voter registration system and no reported breaches from locally elected supervisors of election,” Detzner wrote.

State legislators have accepted $19.2 million from the federal government to further secure voting systems that were targeted by Russian hackers in 2016.

Detzner has described hackers’ failure to breach election systems in 2016 as a “success story” for Florida.

Scott on Tuesday backed Detzner’s outlook on the 2016 election.

“We don’t believe that anybody was able to get into the system. We had a free and fair election. They have been clear about that, all along,” Scott said. “My understanding is that the secretary of state’s office has reached out to Homeland Security and the FBI, and they’ve said they don’t know of anything.”

Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan told News4Jax he thinks the claim by Nelson is "a little irresponsible" -- to make that statement then not reveal what's going and where they found a breach by Russian hackers.

Nelson will make an appearance Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. in Jacksonville. He will be meeting with Hans-Mill, a local manufacturer, to discuss the impact of tariffs on steel. Governor Rick Scott will be meeting with Florida manufacturers in Yulee and Medley Florida on Wednesday morning, beginning at 9:30 a.m.

About the Authors:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.