As state officials acknowledge that domestic and foreign actors may be constantly attempting to penetrate Florida’s election infrastructure, U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe sees another danger that is equally formidable but perhaps harder to manage: public perception.
“All you need is a computer and some shrewd, smart, social engineering-type people to get inside the heads of the Americans … and you can wreak havoc on a free and open society,’’ said Keefe, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee acknowledged this week that Florida’s election systems are under “daily” attack by foreign or domestic adversaries and, while she wouldn’t detail what the attacks are, she said the state has launched an aggressive campaign to educate and train local election officials to be able to counter those threats.
Keefe said those attacks often attempt to “get inside our electronic election infrastructure and change the voter rolls or tabulations.”
But even if those attempts are unsuccessful, as officials say they have been, Keefe warns of an equally dangerous threat: the role Internet bots and trolls play by disseminating misinformation and creating doubt about the security of the election system.
“If there’s a public perception that we’re vulnerable, that accomplishes the enemy’s result,’’ Keefe said in an interview Thursday. “Perception is equal to the reality.”
To combat the threats — both real and perceived — an election security “team” has been working together in Florida since April, Keefe said.
Keefe, a Republican who was appointed to his post by President Donald Trump at the recommendation of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, is leading the team because, as the chief federal prosecutor in the state’s capital, this is where any election lawsuits are likely to originate.
The team is comprised of state, federal and county officials, and Keefe has invited them to a news conference on Friday to describe their role in making sure that the security breaches that occurred during the presidential race of 2016 don’t happen again in 2020.
“We want to earn your trust,’’ Keefe said. “So here are the names, faces, the human beings.”
The rare public lineup includes FBI agents, Homeland Security cybersecurity experts, Florida’s law enforcement chief Rick Swearingen, Secretary of State Lee, the state’s top elections officers, and the two other U.S. attorneys in Florida: Maria Chapa Lopez of the Middle District, and Ariana Fajardo Orshan of the Southern District.
In April, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report publicly confirmed that more than one Florida county had been hacked ahead of the 2016 presidential election. In July, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a heavily redacted report that suggested that the FBI suspected that four Florida county election systems had been hacked in 2016.
The reports served as a warning about a new kind of cyber-warfare, where the battleground is now county election offices, Keefe said.
“Our enemies can’t really go toe to toe all that well with us in conventional things like military attacks, so the means they use are more insidious and less direct,’’ he said, naming Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. “A small player with very limited means and resources can have huge impacts. Not because, in fact, they’re doing something, but they can create the impression that they are.”
Many in the public don’t understand how elections are handled, that it’s not the federal government’s job to manage them but is instead the province of locally elected supervisors of elections, Keefe said.
Supervisors of elections are constitutionally elected officers who decide what security measures to put in place and, while they can receive help and assistance, they are “the point of the spear” because they have the final authority over how elections in Florida are handled, Keefe said.
Last week, Keefe brought together Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, and state Sen. Joe Gruters, chair of the Republican Party of Florida, to talk about their fears about what could happen as 2020 approaches.
“I’ve never had a meeting like that before an election,’’ said Mark Herron, attorney for the Democratic Party who attended the meeting.
Keefe “laid his cards on the table,’’ Herron recalled. “He said he was working with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and he wanted to make sure we have a fair and secure election and, when things come to his attention on voter fraud and voter suppression, he would look into it.”
Gruters said that based on what happened in 2016, “65 of 67 counties did a good job, and our system largely works, but there is a lot of room for improvement.”
He said he is encouraged by Keefe’s attempt to restore public confidence.
“The public wants certainty that the elections are secure and safe,’’ Gruters said. “By taking this type of approach, and opening up this attitude, hopefully we can get the public to know the elections are being conducted in a way they expect.”
Keefe, who has repeatedly said he has no political aspirations and plans to leave this job when Trump leaves office, said he told Rizzo and Gruters that’s he’s committed to being nonpartisan in the way he discharges his duties.
“Even though I’m a political appointee, and and I’ve long been a registered member of a particular party, I am serious about my oath of office,” he said he told them. Any election issue, he vowed, he will “play straight down the middle: nonpartisan, nonpolitical.”
Herron said he hopes Keefe’s efforts will also lead to more answers.
“Is Florida’s election system secure?” Herron asked. “No one will tell you who got hacked or how we got hacked.”
While Heron said he believes the voter tabulation system was not successfully hacked in 2016, he still suspects the voter registration file may have been breached “and maybe information was taken. Maybe if Congress gets the full Mueller report, we’ll learn more,’’ he said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas