Florida Gov. Rick Scott, calling the allegations sensational, demanded on Friday that U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson provide proof to back up his statement that Russian operatives have penetrated some of his state's election systems ahead of this year's crucial election.
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Scott, a Republican, is running against Nelson, a Democrat, in November's midterm elections. During a campaign stop in Tampa, Scott said Nelson must provide "evidence for his claims."
"This cannot be swept under the rug," said Scott. "Bill Nelson must come clean and provide a thorough explanation. Elections are not something to try to scare people about."
Nelson late Friday did not comply with Scott's request and instead said he was trying to make sure officials in his home state are "aware of the ongoing Russian threat so they take the steps necessary to safeguard our elections. It's unfortunate that some Florida officials would try to use this issue for personal, political gain."
Nelson earlier in the week said that Russians were able to get inside the election systems of "certain counties" and "now have free rein to move about." He added that "the threat is real and elections officials — at all levels — need to address the vulnerabilities."
The senator, who is the ranking member of the cyber subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has not provided any more details, saying that additional information is classified.
Florida officials responded angrily to Nelson's comments and said they had "zero information" to back up claims of Russian meddling. Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who himself has barely discussed the previous 2016 effort to hack Florida's election systems, sent a letter to the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asking for "immediate transparency and cooperation" in sharing any information about new hacking efforts.
But North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of that committee, declined to confirm or deny Nelson's claims.
"While I understand your questions regarding Senator Nelson's recent public comments, I respectfully advise you to continue engaging directly with those federal agencies responsible for notifying you of and mitigating any potential intrusions," Burr wrote.
Sara Sendek, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, issued a statement Wednesday that said: "While we are aware of Senator Nelson's recent statements, we have not seen any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure. That said, we don't need to wait for a specific threat to be ready."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is also on the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter with Nelson last month to all 67 of the county election supervisors in their state warning them of potential threats.
Rubio on Friday put out a carefully worded statement where he also did not confirm or deny Nelson's allegations.
"Given the importance of Florida in our national politics, our states election systems have been and will remain a potentially attractive target for attacks by foreign actors," Rubio said.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said, "I have seen no evidence that Russians penetrated Florida's election system — but it definitely could happen." Rooney is one of the House sponsors of a measure that would allow state and local governments to voluntarily apply for grants to replace outdated voting machines and modernize their elections systems.
Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states, including Florida, ahead of the 2016 election and are believed to have breached the voter registration system in at least one, Illinois, investigators say. An indictment released last month said that Russian operatives sent over 100 fake emails to elections offices and personnel in Florida as part of the hacking effort. State officials have never acknowledged how many counties were targeted by the Russians.
Scott in May ordered the hiring of special election security consultants after Florida legislators rejected his request for nearly $500,000 to create a stand-alone cybersecurity unit in the Department of State. Legislators, however, did agree to set aside $1.9 million to provide grants to local election officials to purchase a security monitoring service.
Ahead of this year's election, Florida is also distributing more than $14 million in federal election security grants to local election officials.
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