Washington County, in a rural part of Florida’s panhandle, was one of two areas where election databases were hacked by Russia’s GRU spy agency, several news outlets reported Friday.
The county, which has a population of about 25,000, overwhelmingly backed Trump during the 2016 election. Of the more than 11,000 votes cast in the county, 77 percent favored Trump, Politico reported.
The Washington Post, which first identified Washington County as the hacking target, reported that there was no immediate word about the second jurisdiction that the GRU penetrated.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced Tuesday that Russian hackers accessed voter databases in two Florida counties during the 2016 election. DeSantis was told by the FBI about the hacks last week, but said he signed an agreement not to disclose which counties had been affected.
In a statement however, Rep. Neal Dunn (R- FL), who represents the district in the House of Representatives, urged “the FBI to release as much information as possible so Florida voters can understand what happened and have confidence in our election integrity.”
Lawmakers who have been briefed about the cyber attack said federal investigators did not guarantee that the Russians had not altered any election data, although they said there was “no evidence” that they had. Lawmakers said they were also assured that vote counts and electoral processes were not changed in any way.
The hack was among several methods used by Russian actors to try to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. Other efforts included offering members of the Trump campaign damaging information about rival Hillary Clinton and releasing emails stolen from his political opponent through the WikiLeaks website. Russia’s efforts to undermine the U.S. election were the subject of a two year long probe by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Russian spies sent spear phishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for administering the 2016 election. That operation allowed GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county, the Mueller report found.
Florida lawmakers were briefed over the past week by the FBI and U.S. Homeland Security about the Russian voter system hack but were told by law enforcement officials not to publicly disclose information about the case. It is still unclear what other county was affected but sources told Politico it was a mid-sized county on the state’s eastern coast.
The intelligence community has been warning Congress and the White House for years that America’s election system was vulnerable to a Russian cyberattack. Experts say an additional $900 million is needed to upgrade the nation’s election systems to prevent such an attack from happening during the 2020 election. The White House, however, has ignored the threat, offering no additional election cybersecurity funds in its 2020 budget proposal.
Election officials in Washington County would not confirm nor deny that it was the target of a Russian attack but emphasized in a statement Friday that vote counts and election processes were unaffected during the 2016 and 2018 elections.
“The FBI and DHS continue to work with elections officials and our local, state, and federal partners to proactively share information in a concerted effort to protect elections networks in Florida, and across the country, from adversary activity,” read a statement from Carol Finch Rudd, the Washington County elections supervisor.
Florida lawmakers briefed on the cyberattack criticized federal law enforcement officials for designating the information as classified. The FBI said it has done so to protect its sources and investigatory methods.
Members of Florida’s congressional delegation said they are considering legislation that would force federal law enforcement agencies to be more transparent about cyberattacks when they occur, according to the Post.