DeSantis: Russians accessed 2 Florida voting databases

Ron DeSantisThe Associated Press
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks about his plan to protect the environment during an event at the University of Miami Rosensteil School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Russian hackers gained access to voter databases in two Florida counties ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Tuesday.

DeSantis said the hackers didn't manipulate any data and the election results weren't compromised. He and officials from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were briefed by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security on Friday.

The governor said he signed an agreement with the FBI not to disclose the names of the counties, but elections officials in those counties are aware of the intrusions.

One person who wasn't aware was DeSantis' predecessor, now-Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, DeSantis said.

"We're trying to figure out what the state knew at the time," DeSantis said. "Obviously, the previous administration and the head of FDLE did not have that information."

He said the hackers gained access through a spear-phishing email after a worker clicked a link.

Scott criticized his opponent in last year's election, then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, for saying Russians had hacked elections systems and had "free rein to move about" ahead of last year's midterm election. Scott called the allegations sensational.

Scott will receive a briefing Wednesday from the FBI, said spokesman Chris Hartline. Hartline confirmed that Scott wasn't aware of the hacking while he was governor.

"It's pretty clear during our back and forth in the campaign there was no information provided to the state," Hartline said. "There will be a lot of questions ... We'll know more tomorrow."

Nelson said last August that Russians had penetrated the systems of certain Florida counties and had "free rein to move about" ahead of last year's midterm election.

After Nelson's comments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint letter that they saw no signs of any "new or ongoing compromises" of state or local election systems. Some experts warned hackers could have left malware on computer systems to be triggered later.

Special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election also said hackers gained access to the network of at least one Florida county. Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio has previously said at least one Florida county had an intrusion.

Rubio said Tuesday that he's repeatedly voiced concerns since last spring about overconfidence among some Florida election officials and has urged them to take cyber threats seriously.

"These are nation state threats with significant resources and assets at their disposal," Rubio said. "Florida is a major swing state that often decides presidential elections, making us a top target."

DeSantis said he was frustrated when he saw the vague reference to hacking in Mueller's report.

"Hey, this shows up in the Mueller report, no one ever said anything to me," DeSantis said. "Granted, I took office in 2019 and this happened in 2016, so I get why the FBI wouldn't have rushed to tell me about something several years ago."

He did say the FBI and Homeland Security officials said Florida is ahead of the curve in elections cybersecurity ahead of the 2020 election — though he warned that attacks change constantly.

"Threats evolve, so I don't ever want to say, 'Hey, there's no more threats.' It's just something you've always got to be vigilant about."

Former Leon County elections supervisor Ion Sancho said cyberattacks aren't his biggest concern. He said Florida doesn't properly audit its vote-counting machines to make sure they're accurate. He said when counting — or recounting — votes, the state assumes the machines are accurate, and that won't catch any abnormalities if someone tampers with machine software.

"If the software is tampered with, what do you think is going to happen if you rescan the ballots? You'll get the same answer back," he said. "The presumption that the voting machine is already correct is a silly presumption to begin with. It guarantees you won't find the problem, if there is one."

Because Florida votes statewide on paper ballots, it can always ensure results are accurate if there's a proper audit, he said.

DeSantis said he wants to make sure officials at the state, local and federal levels share information if there is a threat.

"We're trying to figure out, what was the breakdown? Was it that the FBI didn't want to share, or that information wasn't reported up?" DeSantis said.

The FBI released a statement about its briefing with DeSantis, saying it is working with state and local governments.

"The FBI also provided assurance that investigators did not detect any adversary activity that impacted vote counts or disrupted electoral processes during the 2016 or 2018 elections. The FBI and DHS continues to work with elections officials and our local, state and federal partners to proactively share information in a concerted effort to protect elections networks in Florida, and across the country, from adversary activity," the statement read.

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AP writer Mike Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.

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