TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and other members of Florida’s congressional delegation on Thursday backed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ statement that election records in two unidentified counties were hacked by Russians during the 2016 campaign.
But questions continue to linger.
Scott, who was governor from 2011 to early this year, said in a statement that he -- like DeSantis -- is unable to reveal the counties. The inability to identify the counties has upset lawmakers from both parties.
“I urged the FBI to publicly release this information as soon as they are able,” Scott said. “The FBI said the information is classified due to the risk it poses to national security.”
The FBI has maintained there is no evidence that votes or voter information were altered in the hacking. But such assurances have drawn questions, with U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, saying “we continue to review the matter.”
Another concern is that members of the congressional delegation were told that all Florida counties except Palm Beach have adopted technology and training to prevent similar intrusions in the future.
“I have been assured by our new supervisor that she is in the process of adopting these safeguards,” U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat, said in a statement. “We know that Russia and others continue to try to sabotage our democracy. We must do everything possible to resist.”
DeSantis removed Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher in January, citing a litany of problems with Bucher’s office in the 2018 elections.
The governor was advised last Friday during a meeting at the FBI office in Tallahassee about an “intrusion” into the two counties, but that there was no “manipulation” of voting results, he announced Tuesday.
DeSantis said he also was required to sign a nondisclosure agreement which precludes him from identifying the counties. That drew criticism from Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, who issued a statement saying that signing the agreement “is a violation of the public’s trust. The people of Florida have a right to know what happened.”
The meeting last week at the FBI office did not appear on the governor’s official schedule. It followed last month’s release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report that said a Russian intelligence agency gained access to at least one Florida county-government computer network in 2016.
Other people who attended the meeting with DeSantis were Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, DeSantis’ chief of staff, Shane Strum, and officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
After a congressional delegation meeting Thursday, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican from Sarasota, called the revelations “disturbing.”
“Vladimir Putin is not our friend,” Buchanan said in a statement. “He will keep doing this until we take swift and firm action to safeguard our system. His goal is to disrupt our electoral system and undermine our democracy. U.S. intelligence agencies are the best in the world and need our support to crack down on Russia and anyone else who threatens us.”
Election security became an issue during the 2018 campaign as Scott ran against -- and ultimately defeated -- then-U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. During the campaign, Nelson told reporters that “Russians are in Florida’s election records,” but he refused to elaborate.
Scott repeatedly criticized Nelson’s comment, demanding that the Democrat reveal how he received the information or admit it wasn’t true. At the time, Nelson was the ranking member of the U.S. Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity.
Nelson told reporters that local election officials could get help to secure their databases and records from Russian cyber-hacking, noting the Russians had “penetrated” some voter-registration systems.
On Thursday, Scott maintained his position, saying in the statement that “the FBI told me there is certainly no evidence to support the claim that the Russians still had access to Florida’s election systems at the time of the 2018 election. I want to be clear: the FBI verified that there was no evidence of a breach of Florida’s election records at the time voting occurred in 2018. The FBI could not provide any evidence to support the claims about security during the 2018 election made by then-Senator Nelson, which confirms the conclusion of both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security at the time.”
But U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both Democrats, issued a joint statement Thursday that criticized the FBI for a lack of a “lack of transparency” and expressed disappointment in Scott, who “chose to exploit and trivialize this now-documented assault on our state for political gain last year, despite the prudent and guarded warnings Sen. Nelson made at the time.”