U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. D-Fla., this week made a startling claim: Russian hackers have penetrated the electoral systems of certain Florida counties.
The claim is leaving supervisor of elections across the state perplexed.
“I have no idea what he’s talking about,” said Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett.
Bennett isn’t alone.
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Paul Lux, Okaloosa County supervisor of elections and chairman of the state elections supervisors association, inquired to his colleagues across the state and received similar responses.
In a letter to the association’s members after Nelson made his claim during an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Lux wrote the claim “speaks as amorphously and vaguely as everything else we have been told by the federal government since 2016.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has also raised concerns about election security, but he has not been as specific as Nelson was during his interview with the Times. Nelson stopped short of elaborating, claiming “It’s classified.”
Nelson is facing his toughest election since being elected as a U.S. Senator in 2000 from Republican Gov. Rick Scott. The latest Real Clear Politics poll show the race as a tossup, however, Nelson only leads in two of seven polls averaged.
Bennett stopped short of saying Nelson’s Russia claims were politically motivated but, “I think he just got out in front of himself. You’ll probably see his staff working to walk back that statement because I think he just misspoke.”
Nelson doubled down in an email to the Bradenton Herald on Thursday.
“As Sen. Rubio and I wrote in our letter to the 67 county supervisor of elections, the threat is real and election officials at all levels need to address the vulnerabilities.”
Nelson did not elaborate on whether there are pending threats or what vulnerabilities may exist.
Bennett said Manatee County voters can rest easy.
“It’s kind of interesting to hear about voter fraud,” he said. “In all the years I’ve been here and many years before me, we’ve only found one case. She was a convicted felon and she tried to vote twice. “
It’s a neat talking point, but the talk of Russian interference is interesting, Bennett said.
“We’ve been messing with them for years and they’ve been doing it to us for years and it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Now all of a sudden some people are making a huge thing out of it,” Bennett said.
Lux said every supervisor of elections takes security seriously. If the federal government has evidence that Florida’s counties are at risk during the Aug. 28 primaries and Nov. 6 general election, then perhaps the appropriate thing to do would be provide the necessary resources to counter it.
“All we can do, with the limited resources and compressed schedule that we now find ourselves within, is measure our security posture against established standards and take the actions our resources allow to reduce or mitigate risk,” Lux wrote in his letter
The Florida Department of State also responded to Nelson’s claims, releasing a statement Wednesday that the department, “has zero information” to support Nelson’s claims. “If Sen. Nelson has specific information about threats to our elections, he should share it with election officials in Florida.”
Bennett said he is contact with other supervisor of elections “all the time. There is no panic, just more curiosity as to what (Nelson) is talking about. Manatee County is going to have a great election.”
Scott announced Thursday that the Florida Department of State has approved election security grants for all 67 counties, totaling $14.5 million. Scott began offering the grants last month and until Thursday, only 49 counties were eligible. Manatee County will receive $259,758.
Scott said in his release that as the 2018 elections approach, “There is nothing more important than ensuring the security and integrity of Florida’s elections. In Florida, we are focused on 100 percent participation and zero fraud and this additional funding will help supervisors of elections build on their existing infrastructure and enhance security measures so that we can ensure Florida has another successful election.”
The press released issued by the governor’s office did not state whether the additional funding was a result of any pending threats as indicated by Nelson.