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Bill Nelson Backtracks after Claiming Russia Hacked Florida Election Systems

Sen. Bill Nelson (D, Fla.) testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing about legislative proposals to improve school safety in the wake of the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland, Fla., on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 14, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Senator Bill Nelson on Tuesday tried to back away from his unsupported claim that Russian operatives had managed to penetrate Florida’s election databases ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Last week, Nelson told the The Tampa Bay Times that Russians “have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about.” But at a campaign event on Tuesday, he appeared to try to explain away that comment.

“I want you to know why I said what I said,” the Florida Democrat was filmed telling supporters at the event in Lake City. “It would be foolish to think if the Russians were in our election apparatus in Florida in 2016 and that has now been twice documented . . . that they are not continuing.”

Nelson added that he was merely reiterating a warning about midterm-election hacking that he and fellow Florida senator Marco Rubio voiced in a July 2 letter to Florida secretary of state Ken Detzner. That letter was sent after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence stated that in 2016, “Russia was preparing to undermine confidence process and that, in a small number of cases, cyber actors affiliated with the Russian government accessed voter registration databases.”

Nelson said at the Lake City event that committee chair Richard Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner “came to Marco Rubio and me and said, ‘we have a problem in Florida.’ That the Russians are in the records. We think the two of you should warn the election apparatus of Florida.”

Florida governor Rick Scott, Nelson’s Republican opponent in his campaign for another Senate term, demanded the senator provide proof of his claim and pointed out that if it is true, Nelson could be improperly revealing classified information.

“At this point, people in Florida are just more confused,” said a spokeswoman for the Scott campaign. “This is so important to the public but we’re just not getting questions answered.”

Nelson’s explanations “still don’t make sense,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee added in a statement. “Did Nelson just make up the claim? And if not, why does he seem more comfortable with revealing classified information to the press than to appropriate state election officials?”

Nelson shot back that his critics are using his statement “for partisan political purposes.”

The Department of Homeland Security said last week that it has not recorded “any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure.” Florida election officials added that DHS did not support Nelson’s assertion.

“To the best of our knowledge and the knowledge of our federal partners, Florida’s voting systems and elections databases remain secure and there has been no intrusion of the Florida voter registration system and no reported breaches from locally elected supervisors of election,” Detzner said.

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