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How You Shouldn’t Communicate Fears of Russian Election Hacking

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/via Reuters)

If you had concerns about the integrity of the vote in your state in 2018, what would be the best course of action?

You would probably want to be clear and specific about your concerns, and what prompted them. You would want to consult the state authorities and share whatever you knew about the nature of the threat. You would want to listen carefully to their efforts to protect the system, their firewalls, safeguards, and other tools to ensure a free and fair election. You would want to avoid vague allegations and descriptions that would fuel conspiracy theories or future claims that an election was “stolen.”

In other words, you would do the opposite of everything Florida Senator Bill Nelson is doing:

Russian operatives have “penetrated” some of Florida’s voter registration systems ahead of the 2018 midterms, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Wednesday, adding new urgency to concerns about hacking.

The state, however, said it has received “zero information” supporting his claim.

“They have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about,” Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times before a campaign event in Tampa. He said something similar a day earlier in Tallahassee but declined to elaborate.

“That’s classified,” the Democrat said Tuesday . . .

But if Nelson wants to sound the alarm . . . why is he doing it in media interviews? Surely he knows how to contact the relevant state and county election officials.

“The Florida Department of State has received zero information from Senator Nelson or his staff that support his claims,” agency spokeswoman Sarah Revell said in a statement. “Additionally, the Department has received no information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that corroborates Senator Nelson’s statement and we have no evidence to support these claims.

“If Senator Nelson has specific information about threats to our elections, he should share it with election officials in Florida.”

… Nelson’s remarks immediately caused a major stir among county elections officials, who are testing equipment, training poll workers and counting mail ballots in advance of the Aug. 28 primary. Pinellas County elections officials immediately contacted the FBI, Homeland Security and other state and federal agencies in a futile attempt to find out more about Nelson’s assertion.

“Our office has not seen any indication that we have had any penetration by any bad actions,” said Pinellas election’s office spokesman Dustin Chase.

This is all complicated by the fact that Nelson is up for reelection this year, he’s running against the current governor Rick Scott — who has authority over the state government and its efforts to run the elections — and polling indicates a closely fought race with Scott probably narrowly ahead.

Are Florida’s counties prepared? The people running them seem to think they are; Nelson is contending they aren’t. But he apparently hasn’t reached out to them to address the problem before the primaries. Just what does Nelson want to see done before the primary and general elections? What is the public supposed to do with this information? Call to see if they’re still properly registered? Vote early?

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