FORT LAUDERDALE — Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday directed the state's chief elections official to seek $19.2 million in federal money to help counties protect against possible cyber-security attacks in the 2018 election.
Scott's intervention came hours after the official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, was quoted as saying the federal money would not be available before November because accepting it requires approval by the Legislature — even though that step is a formality that could be done at a brief meeting.
"The answer is no," Detzner said when asked if the aid money could be used to improve election systems this year. "We don't have the authority to spend that money without legislative approval."
That was unwelcome news for county elections officials, who are desperate for money.
Detzner spoke to reporters Tuesday evening at a statewide conference of election supervisors, where the biggest issue by far was how to protect the election systems in the nation’s most important political swing state from malicious intrusions, like the attempted Russian hack in 2016.
But Scott's reversal, in a statement issued at noon Wednesday, gave the issue added urgency and underscores a heightened sense of political sensitivity in a year in which the governor is seeking a U.S. Senate seat.
It also revealed Detzner to be off-message in an administration known for being highly disciplined in its communications.
"The integrity of our elections is paramount, and we'll keep fighting to ensure that every Floridian continues to have confidence in our elections process," Scott said in his statement. "By directing DOS (the Department of State) to draw down more federal funding, we are providing the resources our local elections officials need to keep our elections secure."
The quality of election preparations has been a matter of high interest and political controversy in every Florida election since 2000, when the state decided the U.S. presidency by 537 votes after an election marked by irregularities that made the "hanging chad" a part of the American political lexicon.
President Donald J. Trump signed a spending bill on March 23 that included $380 million for states to bolster their election systems against the continued threats of cyber-attacks.
Detzner, a Scott appointee and one of his longest-serving agency heads, was with reporters when Scott's statement surfaced.
"We're going to follow the governor's directive. I think it's well-pointed and we're going to move aggressively based on his direction to submit a budget to the EAC (Elections Assistance Commission)," Detzner said.
The governor's office said Detzner was aware that Scott's statement was coming.
Asked to explain the sudden reversal, Detzner said: "I've heard a lot of things here today that there seems to be a demand for some additional resources."
Detzner is in frequent contact with county elections officials and was well aware of their long-standing interest in the federal election security money.
He met privately Wednesday with about a dozen elections officials from Florida's smallest counties, where the need for more money is greatest.
"Time is of the essence at this point," said Taylor County Supervisor of Elections Dana Southerland. "We said (to Detzner), 'You're here, we're talking money, let's see what we can talk about."
She said she would ask about 30 other small counties to list their specific needs to speed up the state's application for the money.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who's being challenged for re-election by Scott, a Republican, went to the Senate floor Wednesday to denounce the state's lack of action despite widespread warnings that Russia would again seek to meddle in the election.
"While at least a dozen other states have taken advantage by applying for and receiving the money to help them protect their systems better from Russian intrusion, my state of Florida hasn't even applied for one single dollar of the $19 million set-aside. Not one," Nelson said.
Scott accused Nelson of "basically spending all of his time just going to the Senate floor and just campaigning. In this state we have focused, since I got elected, to make sure everybody that has the opportunity and the right to vote vote."
The governor made the charge at an official state event in Pinellas Park where he handed out veterans' service medals. He has handed out more than 14,500 of them since 2013.
Word of Scott's intervention spread quickly among elections officials gathered at an oceanfront hotel, who had just spent three hours with a team of officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, discussing how to guard against risks.
"This is very good. Very good news," said Mark Earley, supervisor of elections in Tallahassee's Leon County.
Earley said there was considerable "consternation" among elections officials earlier in the week at what some saw as a lack of urgency in seeking the federal money.
Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless in Clay County praised Scott and said that even if money for security improvements wouldn't be available in 2018, there's another presidential election in two years.
"I appreciate the governor's focus and I welcome any attempt to provide funding," Chambless said.
Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary and Times correspondent William March contributed to this report.