Sen. Nelson: Russia has breached Florida state election systems

Clay County elections supervisor says, if there was a hack, he would know

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, Kent Justice - Anchor/reporter, Deb Riechmann, Associated Press

Russian operatives have penetrated some of his state's election systems ahead of this year's midterms, Florida's Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson claims, but state officials say they have no information on such hacking.

"They have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about," Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday.

The Florida Department of State said it has received "zero information" from Nelson or his staff that supports the claims of Russian meddling -- something national intelligence and Department of Homeland Security officials have repeatedly warned is likely.

"The department has received no information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that corroborates Sen. Nelson’s statement and we have no evidence to support these claims," the department said in a statement.

Nelson, who is running for re-election but is unopposed in the Democratic primary, is declining to identify which counties have been penetrated, saying it is classified information.

"The threat is real and elections officials -- at all levels -- need to address the vulnerabilities," said Nelson, who serves on the Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity.

The Florida Association of Supervisor of Elections Executive Director Ron Labasky told News4Jax's Capitol Bureau on Thursday that the news adds to the need to prioritize the strengthening of elections systems.

“We have been working diligently for the last 18 months to ensure that we've fortified our registration system and our methodology,” Labasky said. "So that no one can get into the system without us stopping it or knowing about it and then stopping it.”

The Department of Homeland Security has approved a $19 million grant to upgrade the state’s election systems prior to the November general election. Of that, Duval County received $590,000, Clay County got $130,000, $120,000 went to St. Johns County and $96,000 went to Nassau County.

Clay County Supervisor of Elections Rick Chambless said he was surprised when he heard Nelson say the Russians had penetrated voting systems.

"I was very disappointed. I was very confused because there has not been any credible or actionable information that has been provided via Homeland Security, via the FBI," Chambless said.

He said, if there was a hack, his office would know. The computer servers in his office are moderated by a quasi-governmental agency that would alert them should there be any type of intrusion.

"To make those assertions without providing credible information does nothing but deteriorate voters' confidence," Chambless said.

"I think any results that come out of this county are absolutely positively secured," said Richard Keene, a Clay County election worker.

Chambliss and Duval County Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan said there has never been a breach of voter tabulation, which is where computers count the vote. Both said that system is not connected to the internet, so hacking the vote would be virtually impossible.

Hogan said Friday that he was troubled by the senator's claims because voting is already underway. 

"I think it's a little irresponsible to make that statement then not tell us what's going on and where they found a breach," Hogan told News4Jax. "To me, it's kind of like a guy walks outside and sees his neighbor's house is on fire. Instead of calling the fire department, he calls the media. We should have been immediately contacted if they knew there was a breach there because we're in the election cycle itself."

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