Florida Politics

Florida voting officials fire back at Rubio's criticism over cyber-threats

Sen. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio Getty Images

As the threat of another attempted cyberattack hovers ominously over Florida’s 2018 election, voting officials in the state are livid at U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for claiming they are “overconfident” and not taking the possibility seriously enough.

“That’s just not the case,” said Clay County Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless. “We are all deeply concerned about the threat and are taking steps to limit the exposure. I thought that his comments were very inaccurate.”

Rubio made his remarks in mid-April at a Florida Association of Counties meeting in Washington.

“I don’t think they fully understand the nature of the threat,” Rubio said.

Taken aback by Rubio’s criticism, Chambless and a second supervisor, Dana Southerland of Taylor County, separately tried to speak to Rubio. Both told the Times/Herald they got no response from his office.

“I’m standing by,” Chambless said in a tone of sarcasm, as if waiting for a phone call from Washington. “I know it’s coming.”

Said Southerland, president of the state association of election supervisors: “I’m not really sure where he’s getting his information.” She said such criticism “erodes the voters’ confidence in the election.”

A third supervisor, Pasco’s Brian Corley, also said Rubio’s initial remarks were inaccurate. Corley said he and his colleagues are “hyper-vigilant” about cyber threats and are continuously updating their contingency plans.

“It is my hope that in the future, the senator or his staff would confer with [supervisors] on our actual efforts to address election cybersecurity in lieu of inaccurate assumptions,” Corley said.

Corley also said Florida’s optical scan voting system, which relies on paper ballots, creates a permanent record of every vote and is more reliable than the touch screen terminals used in 23 states.

Florida switched from touch screens to optical scan ballots in 2008.

Rubio’s office responded to a Thursday request for comment by the Times/Herald after a version of this story was published online Friday.

“Florida’s electoral importance will always make us a prime target,” Rubio said in a Friday statement. “I encourage our competent election officials in Florida to continue to take this threat seriously, and I look forward to discussing this issue further with them.”

Rubio’s office said he will set up meetings with the county officials.

Two county supervisors, Chambless and David Stafford of Escambia County, are the only Florida representatives on a national 27-member panel that is working with the federal government to shore up election systems against cyber threats.

The panel is known as a GCC, shorthand for Government Coordinating Council. Chambless said Homeland Security is serious about working closely with state and local elections administrators to prevent problems.

The clash with Rubio comes in advance of the election supervisors’ annual summer conference scheduled the week of May 21 in Fort Lauderdale.

The conference agenda includes a three-hour forum on Wednesday, May 23, on the subject of cybersecurity resilience, with a speaker from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which last year added election systems to the nation’s critical infrastructure.

He’s Matthew Masterson, who was recently appointed senior cyber security adviser at DHS after he was passed over for another term on the federal Elections Assistance Commission.

A panel on Thursday is entitled “Cybersecurity and crisis communication — Are you ready?”

Russian hackers tried to penetrate the voting systems in at least five Florida counties days before the 2016 election, according to a report by the National Security Agency that was leaked last year.

Gov. Rick Scott has announced plans to hire five cybersecurity experts at the Division of Elections, and the new budget Scott signed last month has money for counties to buy devices that will help them detect potential threats to their systems.

The threat of more disruption “is no longer a matter of if, but when,” Chambless said.

He noted that a cyberattack on a voting system in Knox County, Tennessee, last Tuesday shut down the elections website for about an hour, according to news reports, but did not affect the integrity of the election.

Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.