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Even Without Russian Hacking, Florida's Voting System Is 'Not Secure,' Says Election Expert

Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher checks her watch as she talks to an employee at the elections office during a machine recount on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher checks her watch as she talks to an employee at the elections office during a machine recount on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in West Palm Beach, Fla.

The FBI will brief Florida’s congressional members this week on Russian attempts to hack the 2016 election, after the Mueller report revealed last month that the election system of at least one Florida county was compromised.

But even before details emerge, a former supervisor of elections in Florida is saying he is not surprised that the state’s system was compromised. Ion Sancho, the longtime former supervisor of elections of Leon County, said Friday on The Florida Roundup that Florida’s election infrastructure is, frankly, “not secure.”

“It’s been clear to me that the election infrastructure, not only in Florida but in the country, is not secure,” he said.

The long-awaited special counsel report, released in April, shed new light on the vulnerability of U.S. voting systems. And it singled out Florida.

According to the report, in November 2016, the Russian intelligence service, known as the GRU, “sent spearphishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. election.” The FBI believes that the operation penetrated “at least one Florida county.”

The emails were made to appear to be coming from VR Systems, a Florida company that sells election software.

The report was the first time the U.S. government claimed Russia gained access to a voting network.

In a subsequent interview, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Russian hackers not only accessed a Florida voting system, but also were in a position “to change voter databases.”

The report has raised questions about why federal officials did not alert Florida lawmakers and election officials earlier about the hacking to try to prevent it.

Former Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, warned last year during his race for reelection about 2016 Russian hacking attempts. But because of the classified nature of the information, he wasn’t able to provide details, and his challenger, the then Gov. Rick Scott, blasted the claims as alarmist and reckless. 

Rubio and Nelson also wrote a letter in July of last year to Ken Detzner, the state’s top elections official, encouraging him “in the strongest terms” to take advantage of “a wide range of services that will support ... efforts to make your systems secure.”

Detzner insisted at the time that there was no Russian interference. And Scott went on to win the Senate election by just 10,000 votes.

“We knew that incursions were happening or likely to be happening but what’s been surprising is the varied response we’ve had from our public officials about this issue and how the information has come out so slowly and sporadically,” NPR Reporter Greg Allen said Friday on The Florida Roundup. “It’s unfortunate that we’re finding out about it now. It’s another misstep by federal officials.”

Sancho said he doesn’t think the FBI will ultimately disclose which Florida county was hacked, “because the FBI has a policy of not telling the truth relative to the disclosure of the methods and sources of how they find out information.”

Gov. DeSantis has vowed to make the information public if it is not classified.

Apart from Russian hacking, Sancho said Friday that the state is in desperate need of upgrades to its election system.

Hundreds of thousands of voting machines currently being used in the United States were designed in the early 1980s, he said. Back then, “security was not a concern.”

Florida made changes to its voting system following the notorious 2000 recount, when the U.S. presidential race was decided 36 days after Election Day following numerous legal challenges. Voting irregularities were also uncovered across the state.

After rushing to implement touch-screen technology following the debacle, Florida exchanged the technology in 2007 for machines that provide a paper trail. The state now uses paper ballots.

But, he said, the audit system continues to be subpar, and is “among the worst in the country.”

And voting software is vulnerable and “buggy,” with “errors already built into it,” he said.

The 2018 midterm elections highlighted a number of continued shortcomings in Florida’s election systems, even with paper ballots.

“I don’t think we even know today, without even the Russian situation, what was the accurate vote in Hillsborough County? What was the accurate vote in Broward? Both of those counties, after conducting their machine scanned recounts in 2018, ended up with vastly different totals at the end of the day,” he said.

Sancho called for the implementation of a system able to conduct “a reliable scientifically valid recount to determine the accuracy of those votes on those pieces of paper we call ballots.”

Copyright 2019 WLRN 91.3 FM

Jessica Weiss