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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Clarity needed on Russian efforts in Florida to influence election

The Russian hacking efforts to sway the presidential election have hit home. At least five Florida county elections offices received malicious emails sent by Russian hackers days before the election in an effort described in a leaked intelligence report. While those efforts apparently were unsuccessful in Florida, state and local elections officials should redouble their security efforts and government at every level should be more open about the extent and nature of foreign attempts to interfere with U.S. elections.

The Times/Herald reported that at least five county elections offices received the emails that contained attachments that could have taken control of their computers: Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus, Clay and Volusia. There may have been others, and there is no obvious political strategy for targeting the counties that have been identified. All but Volusia did not open the email, and Volusia opened the email but not the attachment. So the computer systems and protocols appear to have worked for now.

What about next time? State and county elections officials should continue to review their procedures, and state lawmakers should examine what financial and technical resources counties may need to further reduce the potential for hackers to compromise computer systems and alter the outcome of elections. Some counties have more technical expertise than others, and the decentralized nature of Florida's election system means some areas may be more vulnerable than others even if it would seem difficult to simultaneously infect the entire state.

The extent of the Russian attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election becomes more disturbing with each revelation, and the ongoing federal investigations should ferret out exactly what happened where. There is nothing more important to democracy than ensuring the integrity of elections and maintaining public confidence that the system is fair and the outcomes are not tainted. But Americans deserve to see the clearest picture possible of what the Russians attempted last year and to be told what steps will be taken to ensure such interference will not be successful in the future.

A leaked intelligence report from the National Security Agency describes efforts by a Russian military intelligence unit to disrupt the presidential election by targeting a Tallahassee firm that sells voter-registration software and then 122 election management officials throughout the country. After the national security news outlet the Intercept published the intelligence report Monday, the Times/Herald sent requests for the Russian emails to all 67 Florida elections offices. Why was this information kept from Floridians in the first place? A contractor is charged with leaking the classified intelligence report describing the Russian hacking attempts, but without that leak Florida elections officials and the state's voters would not have known the extent of this effort to sway the election.

The very idea of Russian hackers attempting to corrupt the computer systems of county elections offices in Florida to influence a national election would have been the stuff of spy movies not so long ago. Now it is the sobering reality, and Floridians need to know exactly what happened and what more will be done to prevent such interference in our elections going forward.

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