With early voting already under way in some Florida counties, Republican Gov. Rick Scott is keeping up the pressure on Sen. Bill Nelson’s yet-unsubstantiated claims that Russian operatives have already compromised Florida elections.
In their hotly contested race for the Senate, the Democratic senator’s comments seemed to dovetail with the narrative of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections — international shenanigans many in the U.S. intelligence community have concluded were real.
But Mr. Nelson’s pointed remarks triggered a storm of protest not only from Mr. Scott, but from other Florida officials too.
Mr. Scott has spent the week hammering Mr. Nelson for his claims last Tuesday in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that “Russians are in Florida’s elections records,” and that they had “already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about.”
The senator offered no specifics or evidence for his bombshell, and when pressed to do so, demurred on the ground it was “classified.”
Since then, Mr. Scott’s campaign has repeatedly accused Mr. Nelson of either fabricating his accusation to play off inchoate fears of Russian hacking, or breaking the law by revealing classified information.
Mr. Scott continued his criticisms Tuesday after a state Cabinet meeting in Tallahassee.
“If he does have classified information, how did he get it? I don’t think he’s entitled to it, and why would he release it to a reporter? If it’s not true, then why didn’t he just come and say it’s not true?” Mr. Scott said.
“We’re in the middle of a primary election, people are voting, absentee ballots are out, early voting has started in some places and people need to know the facts. And I don’t think he’s been transparent,” the governor continued.
Mr. Nelson’s office released a statement late Friday claiming the Scott campaign was seeking to exploit a serious situation for political gain, but other than that, the three-term senator has been so invisible that the Times published a story Monday afternoon headlined, “Where is Bill Nelson?”
The Nelson campaign has not offered any information buttressing his charges, either in regards to its source or the specific counties allegedly affected, and late Monday referred questions about them back to his Washington office.
However, the campaign disputed the idea the senator had gone underground in a close race, noting a then-planned appearance in the state’s Panhandle region on Monday, in Quincy.
At that meeting, according to the Times, he “carefully” repeated unspecified and unsubstantiated claim by saying “it would be foolish to think that the Russians would not continue to do this as they did in Florida in 2016.”
He had visits planned for Tuesday in the north Florida towns of Monticello, Madison, White Springs and Starke.
After Mr. Scott spent days ripping into Mr. Nelson’s vague charges on television and in campaign email blasts, the National Republican Senate Committee jumped in Monday saying the 75-year-old senator “can’t hide forever and Floridians deserve an explanation now.”
Florida’s Republican Secretary of State Ken Detzner also continued to press for evidence, although a Monday deadline he set for more information from the FBI and the federal Department of Homeland Security passed without a response.
Mr. Detzner and other state officials have vociferously disputed Mr. Nelson’s claim, saying they know of no such penetrations of the state’s electoral security systems.
In a letter sent Friday to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Mr. Detzner said the claim is without foundation.
“To the best of our knowledge and the knowledge of our federal partners, Florida’s voting systems and election databases remain secure, and there has been no intrusion of the Florida Voter Registration System and no reported breaches from the locally elected Supervisors of Elections,” Mr. Detzner wrote.
Some of Mr. Nelson’s colleagues have offered halfhearted support.
Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told Mr. Detzner in writing that the chances Russia would seek to subvert electoral processes in the U.S. is real and he urged state officials to be diligent. But neither he nor Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who echoed that theme, offered any solid evidence that Mr. Nelson’s startling charge was true.
Earlier this year, Mr. Detzner had said the state could not avail itself of almost $20 million in federal funds to help combat potential cybersecurity attacks on its electoral systems because he couldn’t get legislative approval for it in time.
Mr. Scott promptly overruled the secretary, ordering him to request $19.2 million. It remains unclear, however, how much of that money has been spent and on what, with some state officials objecting to a provision that requires counties to return unspent funds to Tallahassee after November’s election.
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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