Elections officials across Florida have been fielding a question that sounds like it comes from a spy movie script. Have you been hacked by the Russians?
Most elections supervisors give a curt no, or at least say they don’t have any knowledge of a hack. But the Miami Herald reports two counties — Washington and Sumter — offered legalese non-denials.
Meanwhile, anonymous sources told the Washington Post that one of those counties — Washington — indeed was hit by a Russian hack in 2016.
Washington Supervisor of Elections Carol Finch Rudd went so far as to issue a press release Friday on election security further not denying anything did or did not occur.
“At this time, Washington County can neither confirm or deny that they are one of the counties affected,” the release reads. But it also stressed the FBI found no “adversary activity that impacted vote counts or disrupted electoral processes through the 2016 and 2018 elections.”
Notably, Sumter’s Elections Supervisor at the time of the 2016 election, Karen Krauss, said she didn’t recall any issues before she retired. “I had no reason to suspect anything,” she said.
But considering the FBI recently told Gov. Ron DeSantis that two counties in fact were struck, signs point strongly to these two rural locales.
So what’s that mean regarding apparent security infringements around the 2016 presidential election?
What About The Vote?
Officials have repeatedly stressed they have no signs Russians ever tinkered with vote totals in the 2016.
Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security Secretary under President Barack Obama stressed after the election hackers never manipulated vote totals. DeSantis said the FBI maintained as much in a meeting last week.
President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 surprise countless election watchers because polls almost universally predicted Democrat Hillary Clinton would win. Polls get elections wrong sometimes, as DeSantis knows.
And notably, many polls showed Florida a toss-up. Indeed, the RealClearPolitics polling aggregate had Trump up in Florida by 1.2 percent, his actual margin of victory. It was states like Wisconsin and Michigan that surprised pundits. Notably, Trump would still have won even if Clinton won Florida.
Also of note, if Washington and Sumter counties were the only ones hacked, hypothetical manipulation of totals would have made no difference.
In Washington County, there were only 11,156 votes tabulated for President. Trump won 8,637 votes there, and Clinton won just 2,264.
Sumter, which includes most of The Villages, saw far more votes cast, 76,665 in total. Trump won 52,730 and Clinton won 22,638.
But even every one of the 87,821 votes cast in both counties was in fact a fake vote typed in by the Russians, it didn’t make a difference in who won Florida.
Statewide, Trump won by 112,911 votes, or 1.2 percent of about 9.4 million cast.
What Happened In Those Counties?
The statement from Rudd’s office indicates the FBI still has an interest in what occurred two years ago. She pointed at a statement released by the FBI after its briefing with DeSantis.
“The FBI and DHS continue to work with elections officials and our local, state and federal partners to proactively share information in a concerted effort to protect elections networks in Florida, and across the country,” the FBI statement reads.
Sumter County notably saw a handover in election supervision since the 2016 election. Krauss, the elections supervisor since just before 2000, did not seek re-election in 2016 but oversaw the election.
At least before she left office in November, Krauss said she saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“I never suspected or had any reason to suspect problems,” she told Florida Politics.
An audit of the election results in 2016 showed machines acted with perfect accuracy. It also shows few provisional ballots were cast for President, which one would expect if voters went to polls and found their records wrongfully deleted.
In total, there were six provisional ballots cast in Early Voting and another five on Election Day. Ultimately, seven of those votes were deemed legal votes for Trump and the other four were counted for Clinton.
“I felt good about the job I did,” Krauss said. “I never felt there was anything going on.”
In Washington, Rudd served and oversaw the election in 2016. In that much smaller county, a total of 10 ballots were cast provisionally. Of those, nine were ultimately added to the vote totals. Those included seven votes for Trump, one for Clinton and one for Libertarian Gary Johnson.
The FBI has not indicated directly to the publicly or indirectly to officials whether they have ever found any successful manipulation of records.
So What Was Done?
What appears most likely is that Russians accessed voter registration databases in the two counties.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election raised eyebrows when it said hackers successfully penetrated systems.
“In November 2016, the GRU (Russian military) sent spearphishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. election,” the Mueller report says.
“The spearphishing emails contained an attached Word document coded with malicious software (commonly referred to as a Trojan) that permitted the GRU to access the infected computer.”
The findings are what prompted DeSantis to ask for a debriefing from the FBI. Mueller’s team did not investigate the success of the attack, nor did it disclose the one county counsel said had been hit.
Florida’s State Department denied any knowledge of Florida systems being successfully hacked.
All of this prompted the Florida Congressional Delegation to demand their own FBI briefing this week. Representatives from both sides of the aisle expressed displeasure at the FBI’s lack of transparency.
While confirming a second county has been breached, the FBI still resisted calls to confirm the impacted counties.
DeSantis said he had to sign a nondisclosure agreement promising not to reveal the counties.
FBI officials told the Congressional delegation the agency found no evidence of database tampering and that results were not affected.
But U.S. Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Michael Waltz, an Orlando Democrat and a St. Augustine Beach Republican, said they still had questions about such conclusions.
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto said the FBI had explained phishing emails had been sent to all 67 county elections offices.
Two offices had employees who clicked on the emails, triggering a program that gave hackers access to voter registration records.