MONTICELLO, Fla. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, under fire from Florida's Republican governor, isn't backing down from comments that Russian operatives have penetrated some of his state's election systems ahead of this year's crucial election.
During stops in north Florida over a two-day period, the three-term Democrat said that state and local officials need to take Russian meddling as a "serious threat" and that county election supervisors need to make sure they have help to protect their election systems. Russian hackers targeted at least 21 states, including Florida, during the last election.
"It would be foolish to think that the Russians are not continuing to do what they did in Florida in 2016," Nelson said. "It is unfortunate that some Florida officials are trying to use this for partisan purposes."
Nelson, while responding to questions from a reporter, said last week that Russians were able to get inside the election systems of "certain counties" and "now have free rein to move about." He added that "the threat is real and elections officials — at all levels — need to address the vulnerabilities." But Nelson has declined to go into details, saying the information is classified.
Scott, who is challenging Nelson this fall, has demanded that Nelson provide proof of Russian efforts and has suggested that the senator was either making it up or releasing classified information. Scott is challenging Nelson in this year's election.
"People need to know the facts and I don't think he's been transparent," Scott said Tuesday.
Later in the day, Scott put out a statement calling Nelson "irresponsible" and said "he is the one who has politicized a serious concern that our supervisors of elections and state officials are focusing on every single day."
The Scott administration has called on federal authorities to rebut Nelson's statements. Last week the Department of Homeland Security put out a statement that the agency had not seen "any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure." But U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, head of the Senate intelligence committee, and Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who sits on the committee, have declined to either confirm or deny Nelson's statements.
During his campaign stop in Monticello that attracted a small crowd of Democrats, Nelson was asked about Russian meddling. He noted that both he and Rubio were asked by the Senate intelligence committee to write officials in Florida in early July and warn them.
Nelson maintained that foreign nations have the capability to infiltrate election systems and that the threat of American retaliation is the only thing preventing more aggressive actions.
"You take a sophisticated nation state like Russia or China, they can get into anything," Nelson said.
While many details of the 2016 hacking efforts have remained murky, an indictment released last month said that Russian operatives sent more than 100 fake emails to elections offices and personnel in Florida. State officials have never acknowledged how many counties were targeted by the Russians.