When the governor of Florida summons reporters to the state Capitol to say that “I’ve recently met with the FBI,” you know something is just not right.
That’s what happened Tuesday, when Gov. Ron DeSantis called a press conference to discuss his Friday meeting with officials from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security about Russian attempts to disrupt the 2016 election in Florida.
DeSantis says he was assured the election results weren’t manipulated, that the “intrusions” were only made into publicly available voter data. The FBI underscored that assertion in a statement, saying its “investigators did not detect any adversary activity that impacted vote counts or disrupted electoral processes during the 2016 or 2018 elections.”
DeSantis deserves credit for insisting on the meeting and sharing what he could, something his predecessor, Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, has yet to do.
But the secrecy that surrounds this election, which happened two-and-a-half years ago, is unsettling.
Have we learned nothing from Florida’s past election controversies?
Secrecy undermines trust. Absent transparency and accountability, how can citizens be confident that county elections officials are prepared for similar hijinks in the 2020 presidential election?
And what does “intrusions” into voter data mean, anyway? Have voter rolls been manipulated?
And why does the story keep changing?
For the first time Tuesday, we learned two counties were targeted, not one, as had been previously reported.
DeSantis requested the meeting after the ambiguously-worded report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller noted Russia had tried to infiltrate “at least one county government” in Florida.
Before telling the governor which counties were hacked, the FBI required him to sign a non-disclosure agreement. How’s that for “sunshine”?
One of the two counties is believed to be Broward, where Supervisor of Elections Pete Antonacci confirmed on April 25 that it had received a “phishing” email in the fall of 2016 from VR Systems, a Tallahassee elections vendor that provides voter registration software to Florida counties. The Mueller report said some 140 elections officials were sent emails from Russian hackers pretending to be with VR Systems.
On Tuesday, however, Antonacci told WPLG-Channel 10: “It’s not Broward. It’s not Broward. My information technology expert says that it’s not us, and I take him at his word.”
Given the problems in Broward’s election division, voters deserve a second opinion. Was voter data hacked? Why is that answer a state secret?
The other county could be Volusia, where election supervisor Lisa Lewis told the Tampa Bay Times in 2017 that three staffers had received the same suspicious email, but none opened the attachments.
Again, was voter data in Volusia hacked? If so, what was accessed, what are the implications and what’s been done to keep such a breach from ever happening again?
Keeping the names secret implicates all 67 Florida counties, an unfair inference.
Two election supervisors who spoke to the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board on Tuesday — Paul Lux of Okaloosa County, and Mark Earley of Leon — defended the secrecy, so as not to risk exposing vulnerabilities in county election systems or reveal cyber-security defenses.
Come on. The Russians are not reading newspaper stories to learn which voter databases they successfully infiltrated.
Besides, we’re not asking for computer passwords. We’re asking which counties got hacked. And right now, there appears to be a good deal of confusion about that.
Even DeSantis said Tuesday: “I think (the counties) should be named.”
The only upside to not naming the counties is that all of them must now behave as though it were them, muscle up their technological defenses and train their people not to download unexpected attachments from people with familiar-sounding email addresses.
The downside, though, is that on the public confidence meter, the promise of free and fair elections is taking another hit.
A version of this editorial first appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.