On Election Day, the people most in the dark about the security threats to Florida’s voting systems are Floridians. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has made alarming claims about cyberattacks by Russian hackers, while citing classified sources and offering no evidence, but the response from state officials has only added confusion and rancor to what should be a sober discussion. Voters need clearer, concrete information in order to have confidence that their elections are secure.
Since the 2016 presidential election, Americans have known that Russian operatives have attempted various means of hacking into states’ voting systems. An indictment this summer of 12 Russian intelligence officers stated that operatives in 2016 faked a real election vendor email account to send more than 100 “spearphishing” emails to election administrators in several Florida counties. Sen. Marco Rubio has said those threats remain as hackers continue to probe for cyber vulnerabilities, and he suggested that county elections supervisors have “overconfidence” in their systems.
This month, Nelson asserted that the attacks went beyond probing and claimed Russians had actually infiltrated some Florida counties’ systems and “now have free rein to move about.” When pressed for more details, he has said the information is classified. That does little to help county supervisors of election, who lack Nelson’s security clearance, and it leaves voters with uneasy questions but no answers.
Gov. Rick Scott hasn’t provided clarity by turning the issue into a political cudgel in his Senate race against Nelson. He wants Nelson to prove the claims, which of course Nelson presumably can’t do without revealing classified information. (Rubio, notably, has not denied Nelson’s claims.) The governor’s grandstanding may make for compelling politics, but it’s a disservice to the electorate.
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If you scratch the surface, there are indications the warnings have merit. Rubio had a closed-door meeting with some county elections officials, warning them about Russian hacking threats. He and Nelson were asked by the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in July to send a letter to elections supervisors warning about Russian threats — a request they did not make of senators from any other state. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., also did not deny Nelson’s allegations about Florida voting systems being penetrated.
But mere hints that Florida’s elections are at risk are not enough. Firm information is needed, and it may be appropriate to declassify certain information in the interest of transparency. Without revealing specific methods that could undermine counterintelligence efforts to fight the hacking, voters are entitled to know, at a minimum, which counties’ systems are under attack and what kinds of records are being sought, such as voter registration information. Otherwise, what are voters to make of ominous but vague claims about election hacking? Who is protected by keeping so much information secret that hackers already know? Certainly not the public.
Nelson kicked up a storm this month with his claim that some Florida voting systems have been breached. Scott has been in attack mode ever since. Floridians, meanwhile, can’t tell how serious the threats are to the integrity of the election. There should be more openness, even if that means declassifying some information that provides clarity without helping would-be hackers.
This editorial was first published in the Tampa Bay Times.