Editorial: Floridians should know which voter rolls were hacked by Russians

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.  AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Published May 3, 2019

Special counsel Robert Mueller's report indicates the FBI believes Russians hacked into "at least one'' Florida county's election system in 2016. Sen. Marco Rubio recently said the Russian hackers were "in a position'' to change voter roll information. It's time Floridians know exactly what happened, which county or counties were hacked and how state and local elections officials will prevent similar interference in the 2020 elections.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, VR Systems, a vendor that handles voter registration software for most of the state's 67 counties, warned local supervisors of elections that someone had created an email account meant to look like it was coming from the company and was sending attachments stuffed with malware. Months later in an intelligence report, the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency said that "Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple U.S. state or local electoral boards," but that no vote counts were compromised. That is pretty much where matters stood publicly until s Mueller's report was released and included this disturbing revelation: "The FBI believes that this operation enabled the (Russian military intelligence agency) GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government."

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Rubio confirmed there was an intrusion by Russian hackers but that it does not appear they actually acted to change voter roll information. That's a relief. Yet Rubio acknowledges the local elections officials who were the target or targets were never told and only a general warning was issued to protect national intelligence operations.

It's past time for clarity. As Gov. Ron DeSantis says, "They won't tell us which county it was. Are you kidding me?'' The governor plans on getting some answers, and those answers should be shared with all Floridians. It's not necessary to reveal any state secrets or computer code. It is necessary to know which county or counties had their voter roll information accessed, and what general steps are being taken to prevent that from happening again in 2020.

The new information also provides some clarity about a dust-up during last year's U.S. Senate race. Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson said then that he and Rubio had been asked by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to publicize fears about Russian hacking in Florida's elections systems but couldn't elaborate because the information was classified. Nelson did claim that hackers had breached a voter registration system. But the FBI refused to share any information to corroborate his assertion, which left Nelson to twist in the wind as his opponent, then-Gov. Rick Scott, repeatedly criticized him. In an October debate, Scott went so far as to accuse Nelson of lying about Russian hacking. Scott, who narrowly defeated Nelson, owes Nelson an apology.

The only good news in this sorry mess is that the vote totals themselves were not compromised. The systems in question involve only voter rolls and registration, not the voting itself. But hackers could potentially create havoc and chaos by manipulating the rolls themselves, so it's cold comfort knowing that they couldn't change the actual vote totals. As Rubio told the Times: "My biggest concern is that on Election Day you go vote and have mass confusion because voter registration information has been deleted from the systems."

The hackers know what they did. There's a great benefit in the public and those who supervise Florida's elections knowing what happened and why. The FBI apparently has agreed to brief DeSantis and Scott soon, but it's incumbent on the FBI to disclose all that it can to the public as quickly as it can for Florida officials to prepare for a secure election in 2020 and for voters to have confidence in the integrity of the system.