Senator Bill Nelson threw a grenade this week when he claimed Russians “have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about.” That allegation came as a total surprise to local and state elections officials. When pressed on the claim, Nelson retreated to the “classified” bunker – saying he couldn’t reveal any more details. That means the senior Senator representing Florida may be withholding information that could undermine the integrity of the state’s elections.
Governor Rick Scott called Nelson out Friday – raising some serious questions and even wondering if Nelson was being truthful.
“That is a very serious charge, for which Bill Nelson has provided no proof,” said Governor Scott. “This cannot be overlooked – either Bill Nelson knows of crucial information the federal government is withholding from Florida election officials, or he is simply making things up.”
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who oversees the state Division of Elections, sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr asking that federal officials share with his agency any “relevant, classified information about current and potential threats.”
Nelson alleged that it was Chairman Burr who encouraged him to share the Russia information with local election supervisors.
“Let me be very clear, this is a very serious charge made in a public setting without any evidence, details or any prior communication to state or local election officials in Florida,” Detzner wrote to Burr.
Chairman Burr responded to Secretary Detzner’s letter Friday, neither confirming or denying Nelson’s claims. He, instead, encouraged the state to contact the proper federal authorities. Detzner sent a letter to the heads of both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI Friday night asking for clarification on Senator Nelson’s comments.
“I also ask that DHS provide our office with an official response that confirms your previous statement that you ‘have not seen any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure’ and reaffirms your commitment to sharing any future knowledge of potential threats to Florida’s voting systems,” Detzner wrote.
With early voting starting Monday in some counties, Detzner asked for a quick reply back.
The comments from Senator Nelson caught local elections officials by off-guard. Some county supervisor of elections have taken to social media in an attempt to ease voter’s concerns.
Okaloosa County Elections Supervisor Paul Lux, who also serves as President of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, told FLA News a survey of his county counterparts found none has received a warning from Senator Nelson since a July 2 letter he and Senator Marco Rubio co-signed warning counties to be diligent. That letter contained no specific mention of a threat from Russia.
“I have been in close contact with the Secretary of State this week about the warnings we supposedly received, Lux said. “We have been working together to pool any information we might obtain about any specific threat to Florida’s elections. So far I have not been contacted by DHS or any other federal agency regarding this matter.”
Lux added what’s needed is for county elections supervisors to receive security clearances and intelligence briefings since they are responsible for protecting the integrity of Florida’s elections. That’s the same request supervisors delivered to Senator Rubio during a meeting in June.
Funds made available by both the state and federal government will help Florida’s counties prepare for a threat to election systems but they are running out of time.
“All we can do, with the limited resources and compressed schedule that we now find ourselves working within, is measure our security posture against established standards and take the actions our resources allow to reduce or mitigate known risks,” Lux added.
The comment from Senator Nelson seems to have created public concern about the upcoming elections leaving state and local officials left having to explain a specific threat they know nothing about.