Florida’s 2018 election (won by Ron DeSantis for Governor and Rick Scott for Senate) was marred by breaches & a lack of transparency
By Jennifer Cohn, 4/27/21
During the 2018 midterm election in Florida, the incumbent in the U.S. senate race was Democratic Senator Bill Nelson. His opponent was then Governor Rick Scott (R ).
Before entering politics, Nelson had served as a captain in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam War where he saw active duty. He graduated from Yale University and the University of Virginia law school.
He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972.
In January 1986, he had become the second sitting member of Congress to fly in space when he served as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia.
He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000.
Nelson’s opponent, Rick Scott, had served as governor of Florida since 2011. One of his “accomplishments” as governor, according to the Sierra Club, was to forbid state employees from “even using the term ‘climate change’ and to order them to refer to sea level rise as ‘nuisance flooding,’ an absurdity that did not escape the attention of the nation’s comedians.’”
Before he was elected governor, Scott had served in the Navy and later as CEO of a company, Columbia/HCA, which was fined $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud that occurred during Scott’s tenure. According to Politifact, “Scott resigned as CEO in July 1997, less than four months after the inquiry became public. Company executives said had Scott remained CEO, the entire chain could have been in jeopardy.”
In 2018, while in his second term as governor, Scott decided to run for the US senate.
That year, the Center for American Progress (CAP) gave the state of Florida an “F” on the issue of election security based in part on the state’s failure to require robust manual election audits.
The CAP report also stated that, “Despite numerous attempts to speak to someone in [Florida] state government about the cybersecurity standards for the state’s voter registration system, state officials told us they would not provide information or comment on our research.” So much for transparency…
Republicans have had trifecta control of the state legislature since 1999 (with the exception of 2010, when the governor was a registered independent). Thus, the GOP is at fault for the state’s failure to protect the integrity of its elections with laws requiring meaningful manual audits and recounts. https://ballotpedia.org/Party_control_of_Florida_state_government
In August 2018, Nelson blew the whistle on Russia’s breach of Florida voter registration systems, which the DHS (led by Republican Kirstjen Nielsen) and FBI (led by Republican Christopher Wray) had concealed from the public.
“They have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “We [Nelson and Marco Rubio] were requested by the chairman and vice chairman of the intelligence committee to let the supervisors of election in Florida know that the Russians are in their records,” he added.
On August 7, Nelson told reporters:
“Right now. Senator Rubio and I have written a letter together to all 67 of the county supervisors of election. He is a member of the Intelligence Committee; I am the ranking member of the Cyber subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. We were requested by the chairman and vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee to let the supervisors of election in Florida know that the Russians are in their records. … Two senators — bipartisan — reached out to the election apparatus in Florida to let them know that the Russians are in the records, and all they have to do, if those election records are not protected, is to go in and start eliminating registered voters.”
The DHS and FBI (Christopher Wray) implied his claim was baseless and refused to corroborate it.
Mueller, Rubio, and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee knew that Nelson was correct about Russia having breached some Florida voter registration systems, but said nothing until after the election was over.
During the election, Scott mocked Nelson’s claim about Russian hacking, called it irresponsible, and suggested that it meant that Nelson was mentally unstable.
Even the Washington Post criticized Nelson’s warning. It gave his claim “four Pinocchio’s,” and charged that “[n]ot a single speck of evidence backs him up, and we have serious doubts whether the classified information he cited even exists.”
In October 2018, right before the deadline to register for the midterm election, Florida’s online voter registration system experienced significant problems.
Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher called it a “mess.” She told Politico in an email that, “We have had hundreds of complaints about the system being down or intermittent all weekend. On 10/6/18 we only received 1 online voter registration, which is highly unusual as we usually get hundreds,” Bucher said. “We have lines in our office and have fielded more than 1,500 calls this morning which is an unusually high volume.”
Scott’s chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Republican, told the Tampa Bay Times that the site had experienced trouble on Monday, but that the issues had been fixed. On Tuesday, however, complaints continued rolling in from people who said they couldn’t update information or register to vote.
The ACLU similarly reported that “Florida’s online voter registration system was only functioning sporadically in the days before the deadline.”
The system had also experienced problems in July, before the deadline for register for the 2018 primaries.
Detzner agreed to extend the registration deadline by one day only, but only due to an incoming hurricane.
Meanwhile, Scott’s campaign received more than $20,000 in donations from Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, the Ukrainian-born associates of Rudy Giuliani who were later indicted on campaign-finance charges.
Real Clear Politics’s (RCP) polling average favored Nelson over Scott by 2.4 points.
Nate Silver predicted that Nelson had a 70% chance of winning the race.
Exit polls indicated that Nelson won the race by 1.3%.
But the official totals showed that Scott had won by .4 % (35,000 votes). The margin was so close that it triggered an automatic machine recount and then a manual recount.
Unfortunately, so-called “manual recounts” in Florida are a sham because only the ballots rejected by the scanners (as undervotes and overvotes) are manually recounted. Most of the paper ballots are simply re-scanned on hackable machines.
Florida’s election audits are also woefully inadequate. “Signed into law in 2007, Florida’s audit law is not binding on official results, does not lead to a full recount, and audits only one randomly-selected election contest, selected separately in each county. No contest with boundaries greater than a county-wide contest can be effectively audited. In 2013 the audit law was amended to provide, in addition to a manual audit, the option of an ‘automated [not manual] independent audit.’”
After the machine recount, which both Scott and Trump tried to block, Scott held the lead by about 10,000 votes out of 8.2 million. (Curiously, in the same election, voters passed a statewide liberal initiative to restore voting rights to convicted felons.)
Local media later reported that, for reasons unknown, an unusually large number of absentee ballots in South Florida had gone unreturned. “The number of absentee ballots not returned was much higher than in the 2014 or 2016 general elections. And the data show that played to the benefit of Republican candidates, especially in heavily Democratic Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.”
“In those South Florida counties, 174,649 ballots sent to Democrats weren’t returned. That’s 91,038 more than those not returned by Republicans. The three counties accounted for 86 percent of the statewide gap of 105,283 between Democratic and Republican vote-by-mail ballots not returned.” A hacked voter registration system could in theory cause problems with delivery of vote by mail by changing voters’ addresses.
Some people blamed Nelson’s loss on a disproportionately high number of undervotes in Broward county, a Democratic stronghold, where the senate race had been placed inconspicuously beneath the ballot instructions.
But this ballot design doesn’t explain Ron DeSantis’s own poll-defying win in the governor’s race, discussed below.
Scott deflected concerns about Russian hacking by maintaining that there had been massive voter fraud (by individual voters) during the midterm election in Broward and Palm Beach counties. But his own election monitors disagreed with him, and an eighteen month investigation ended with no charges filed.
Meanwhile, the Republican-led FBI had concealed Russia’s breach of Florida voter registration systems even from state officials. It came clean only after the Mueller report disclosed the breach in 2019. The FBI, in turn, told local lawmakers that it could not assess with certainly whether voter data had been changed.
Even then, it refused to publicly disclose the breached counties and had state officials sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Two of the breached counties, Washington and St. Lucie, were later identified only due to leaks in 2019 and 2020.
In July 2019, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report disclosed that “four particular counties … were targets for Russian hackers, beginning in August 2016, lasting through that presidential election and continuing through the summer leading up to the 2018 elections.”
The two additional Florida counties have never been publicly identified. Recall that, in August 2018, the DHS and Christopher Wray (the FBI director) had denied Nelson’s claim about a continuing attack.
ES&S may also have been the vendor (referenced in the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report) that was scanned by Russia before the 2016 election. It’s name fits perfectly with the redaction in the report.
The report didn’t say what it meant by “scanned.”
But Jeh Johnson (Secretary of Homeland Security under Obama), told the author of the book Rigged that, as a general matter, “If you could scan it, if you could probe it, you could alter it.” (Note: I’m not sure that Johnson is right about this. ES&S has claimed that, accirding to the FBI, there is no evidence its network was breached.)
Many Florida counties used (and continue to use) ES&S’s DS200 hand-fed precinct ballot scanners, as shown in green below.
Beginning in 2015, the state had quietly allowed ES&S to install wireless modems in many or all of these scanners.
In August 2019, a group of researchers would show that, despite ES&S’s denials, these modems connect to the internet. In fact, election officials in Florida, Wisconsin, and beyond were found to have left them connected to the internet for months and perhaps up to a year in some instances.
The Republican-led DHS had supposedly been helping Florida election officials secure their systems since 2018. Apparently the DHS forgot to tell them to disconnect election systems from the internet (or else officials ignored them).
Once in the U.S. senate, Scott sided with Trump in voting to lift sanctions on Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
In 2020, he voted to nullify Pennsylvania’s votes for Biden, while concurrently ignoring Florida’s own lack of election transparency and failure to require automatic robust manual election audits for most races.
Rick Scott’s Senate win wasn’t the only unexpected Republican victory in the Florida midterm election. Republican Ron DeSantis also defied the polls to defeat then Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum in the 2018 Florida gubernatorial race.
DeSantis, a graduate of Yale college and Harvard law school, had been a member of the US House of Representatives since 2012.
In 2013, DeSantis gained notoriety for signing a pledge sponsored by the libertarian PAC founded by the billionaire Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, promising to vote against any global warming bill that would raise taxes.
In March 2015, for his U.S. senate campaign (which he abandoned after Marco Rubio decided to seek reelection), he hired Tony Fabrizio, who had previously worked for Paul Manafort’s client, Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was Ukraine’s former pro-Putin President who fled Ukraine in 2014 and now lives in exile in Russia.
Manafort would later hire Fabrizio to work on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign as its chief pollster.
During Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s subsequent investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Mueller met with Fabrizio, presumably in connection with Manafort’s transfer of polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian associate of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Fabrizio had been included in email exchanges between Manafort and Kilimnik.
It was recently reported that Kilimnik shared the Trump campaign’s polling data with Russian intelligence in 2016.
As reported in the New Yorker, Fabrizio is also a “senior counselor at Mercury Public Affairs, which Mueller referred to federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, for failing to register as a foreign agent for its lobbying work on behalf of Ukraine.”
In 2016, Guccifer 2.0 leaked hacked documents regarding a potential DeSantis political opponent, as reported by the Empty Wheel blog.
As a member of Congress, DeSantis was one of Trump’s closest allies. In 2017, he proposed an amendment that would have halted funding for Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference six months after the amendment’s passage.
DeSantis won Florida’s Repubican gubernatorial primary in 2018. The next day, he admonished Florida voters to not “monkey this up” by voting for his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, who is black, in the general election.
DeSantis also courted Trump shamelessly during his campaign for governor, airing an ad in 2018 where he taught one of his kids to spell “Trump” and helped another “Build the Wall” with cardboard blocks.
DeSantis’s senate campaign received a $50,000 donation from Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the Ukrainian-born associates of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who were later indicted on charges of illegally funneling foreign money into U.S. campaigns.
“According to the Daily Beast, the items Parnas had on him when he was arrested included five cell phones, eight credit and debit cards and $5,000 in $100 bills.”
RCP’s polling average favored Gillum by 3.6 points. Nate Silver’s 538 gave Gillum a 3 out of 4 chance of winning. (I don’t know what the unadjusted exit polls said.)
But the official totals were “red shifted,” handing the GOP another unexpected victory in Florida.
According to adjusted exit polls (adjusted to match official results), 18% of black women had supposedly supported DeSantis against Gillum, a black man.
The narrow margin triggered a machine recount, which confirmed DeSantis’s win, although machine recounts can be hacked.
Parnas and Fruman were seen in numerous pictures with DeSantis at his victory party on election night.
Parnas and Fruman were also given VIP seating at DeSantis’s inauguration.
DeSantis returned the campaign donation from Parnas and Fruman after they were indicted. He had met with Parnas at least six times during the campaign and its immediate aftermath. They had also exchanged at least one text message.
In his first two weeks in office, DeSantis filled three vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court, shifting the court’s majority from liberal to conservative.
One of the judges, Carlos Muniz, had previously served as general counsel to Betsy DeVos and as deputy general counsel under then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
Another judge appointed by DeSantis, Barbara Lagoa, is a Cuban American conservative, who was previously appointed by Jeb Bush to the Third District Court of Appeal in 2006. She had also been on Trump’s short list of potential nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2019, after the Mueller report blew the whistle on the FBI’s coverup of Russia’s breach of Florida election systems, DeSantis publicly acknowledged the breaches.
But he refused to disclose which counties had been breached, explaining that he had signed an NDA with the FBI. Even some Republicans criticized DeSantis for having willingly signed the NDA.
“‘As a guy who forged his political identity around the failures of the FBI, to now essentially [be] appearing to be party to the cover-up, it isn’t beneficial to him,’ said one top Republican affiliated with Trump.”
The state has since made county election supervisors sign NDAs as to what efforts, if any, they have taken to secure their elections. In 2020, USA Today asked all 67 Florida election supervisors how they’re protecting against election hacking. They got “mostly crickets.” Then they found out why: The state had forced them all to sign secrecy pacts.”
The same year, the FBI announced a new policy to disclose election-system breaches to state officials. But “the FBI’s new policy does not include notifying members of Congress or the public when a system is breached…”
Meanwhile, even as Republicans throughout the country seek to audit election results in counties won by President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential elections, Florida’s Republican-led legislature has made no effort to pass laws requiring robust manual election audits across the board or even full manual recounts in tight races.
Neither have the Democrats in Congress. (HR1 would fund robust manual audits, but not require them.) The SAFEAct, which Republicans blocked in 2020, would have required them for all federal races in 2020. But Democrats have yet to reintroduce it. https://www.axios.com/gop-senator-election-security-blocks-3f432161-42f4-4fa2-9207-d281ec857058.html
At the same time, as of last year, Florida deletes most of its digital ballot images, which the state’s ES&S ballot scanners automatically create when scanning paper ballots. These are public records, which should be preserved, not deleted.
DeSantis supported Trump’s legal disputes of the 2020 presidential election, urging him to “fight on” and suggesting that lawmakers in states won by Joe Biden could revolt and appoint electors who would instead install Trump.
In April 2021, DeSantis signed into law a bill that provides civil immunity for running over protestors. It appears that he had Black Lives Matter protests in mind when he suggested the bill.
Around the same time, DeSantis and Trump were photographed dining together at an event, fueling speculation that DeSantis may run in 2024, either for president or vice president under Trump.
It sure would be nice to have automatic robust manual election audits before 2022, as well as transparency (with the public) about election-system breaches. Where are the lawmakers?!