Gov. DeSantis orders security review following hacked 2016 election

Posted at 1:56 PM, May 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-22 16:19:08-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Describing it as a "top priority," Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday directed Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee to immediately start a review of the security of state and county elections systems after disclosures about Russian hacking during the 2016 campaign.

In a one-page letter to Lee, the state’s top elections official, Gov. DeSantis indicated the review will focus on cybersecurity and involve all 67 counties.

"We just think it's important that we're doing what we can to get ahead of any potential threats," the governor said Wednesday afternoon at a news conference in Lake Park. "We may be able to recommend some changes locally."


The letter said:

"The Department (of State) shall develop a plan to identify and address any vulnerabilities. You are further directed to make this a top priority of the department and report your findings to the Executive Office of the Governor upon completion of your review."

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The directive came eight days after Gov. DeSantis held a news conference to announce that the FBI had advised him that election records in two counties were hacked by Russians in 2016.

The governor said he had signed a non-disclosure agreement that barred him from identifying the two counties, but the Washington Post and Politico subsequently reported that rural Washington County in the Panhandle was one of the targets.

WPTV confirmed through Supervisor of Elections offices that Palm Beach, Martin, and Okeechobee Counties were not hacked. St. Lucie County would neither confirm or deny if it was hacked, and Indian River County never got back to us.

The letter Wednesday and a news release quoting Gov. DeSantis and Lee do not explain how the security review will be conducted or what it will entail. The release said the state has funneled millions of dollars in recent years into improving elections security, including distributing $14.5 million in federal grants to supervisors of elections in 2018.

The governor and other officials have said the 2016 hacking did not involve "manipulation" of voting results. The hackers accessed voter-information files, not the systems that do vote tallying, FBI officials told Gov. DeSantis.

But major questions about the hacking have been left publicly unanswered as the 2020 elections, including the presidential election, approach. The Washington Post reported that a Russian military agency, known as the GRU, was behind the penetration of the Washington County database.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley pointed during an interview last week to the importance of making sure voters are confident in the election system.

"Public perception means a lot in democracy," Earley said. "You’ve got to have public trust in the election process. That’s a big job that we face, in making sure that not only do we do it right, but that the public understands that we do it right and that they can really trust that we do it right. Transparency is a big issue.”

In the news release Wednesday accompanying his letter to Lee, Gov. DeSantis acknowledged the importance of trust in the security of the elections system.

The release read:

"Public faith in our elections is the bedrock of our democracy and we must do everything within our power to preserve the integrity of our elections systems. While the breaches did not compromise the outcome of the 2016 election, nonetheless, they highlight the importance of protecting the security of our elections system."

WPTV and The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.