Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered state officials Wednesday to expedite the acquisition of a $19 million federal grant aimed at protecting the state's election systems from cyberattack, one day after the state's top elections official said the money wouldn't be available until after the November election.
The money is part of a $380 million national election protection program President Donald Trump approved in March. Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state's chief elections official, had said Tuesday at the annual convention for the state's 67 county supervisors of election that the money couldn't be distributed earlier because it requires legislative approval. Scott ordered Detzner, his appointee, to file the necessary paperwork to access the grant soon so the money can be available before the election.
Florida election officials were put in a negative international spotlight during the 2000 election recount that put George W. Bush into the presidency over Al Gore and there have been periodic problems since.
"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 a statement. Scott, a Republican, is running for the U.S. Senate in November against the incumbent Democrat, Bill Nelson. Floridians will also be electing a new governor.
Nelson issued a statement criticizing the Scott administration for not already applying for the funding, saying it leaves the state vulnerable.
"While at least a dozen of other states have taken advantage by applying for and receiving the funding to help them protect their systems from Russian intrusion, my state of Florida hasn't even applied for one single dollar of the $19 million set aside for Florida. Not one," Nelson said.
When federal computer security experts asked the county election officials at their meeting Wednesday if they have plans for countering a cyberattack, only about a third raised their hands, but all said they had hurricane contingencies.
U.S. Homeland Security officials told them a cyberattack would do more damage to their systems and reputations than any natural disaster — and after a hurricane might be when they are most vulnerable to being hacked.
"The bad guys are looking for an opportunity, they hit you when you are down," said Klint Walker, a Homeland Security elections security expert. "The bad guys are on that....they are going to target you during those times of stress."
Matt Masterson, a senior security adviser with Homeland Security, told supervisors their adversaries could be foreign governments or groups, criminals stealing information, political operatives trying to steal an election or agents trying to reduce the public's confidence in democracy. It's for that reason that election security is a key part of the federal anti-cyberattack program alongside electrical grids, dams and other infrastructure.
"Sophisticated and persistent actors are targeting our systems — that's our reality now," Masterson said. "And it is not unique to Florida." He showed how the Islamic State defaced the North Carolina election website, while identity thieves broke into the Illinois and Arizona systems. Such incidents erode the public's confidence in the elections system, he said.
However, he said, the supervisors need to strike a balance. He said it would be possible to design a nearly hack-proof computer system, "but no one could vote on it."
Bobby Beasley, supervisor of elections in the Panhandle's Walton County, said hackers tried unsuccessfully to get into his county's system in 2016 along with others.
"We realize it is a problem," Beasley said, saying his county is adding a stronger system aimed at thwarting hackers. "We have to stay one step ahead of them."
Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes said her county's voters "should feel very secure. We stay on top of things." Her office recently lost a lawsuit for destroying ballots in a congressional election before they were allowed.
Walker, who worked for the Defense Department before moving into election security, said it was a "humbling moment" when he realized his previous work protected soldiers' lives. "It is probably even more humbling when you realize you are protecting people's freedom, their right to vote," he said.