Russian operatives have penetrated the election system of one of the largest U.S. states, and could delete voters' registration documents ahead of the November elections if the systems are not adequately protected, the state's U.S. senators are warning.
"They have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about," Florida Senator Bill Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times on August 8.
"We were requested by the chairman and vice chairman of the [Senate] Intelligence Committee to let supervisors of [the] election in Florida know that the Russians are in their records," Nelson said.
The southern state of Florida is not only one of the most populous states, but it has also played a critical role as a swing state, helping determine the outcome of recent nationwide elections.
Nelson, a Democrat, and Florida's other senator, Republican Marco Rubio, wrote a letter last month telling the state's 67 county election supervisors about the Russian threat, the newspaper said.
But the state department that oversees elections on August 8 said that it has received "zero information" from Nelson, federal, or state agencies to support the Russian infiltration claim.
"If Senator Nelson has specific information about threats to our elections, he should share it with election officials in Florida,” said Sarah Revell, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, adding that state and local officials have already received federal funding to strengthen the security of the state's election systems.
Nelson told the Times that "the threat is real and elections officials -- at all levels -- need to address the vulnerabilities."
"This is no fooling time. That's why two senators, bipartisan, reached out to the election apparatus of Florida to let them know the Russians are in your records and all they have to do, if those election records are not protected, is to go in and start eliminating registered voters," Nelson said.
"You can imagine the chaos that would occur on election day when the voters get to the polls" and discover they are no longer registered to vote, he said. Creating such confusion is "exactly what the Russians want to do," he said.
Sara Sendek, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, issued a statement late on August 8 saying: "While we are aware of Senator Nelson's recent statements, we have not seen any new compromises by Russian actors of election infrastructure."
The Senate Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat, Senator Mark Warner, said Florida and all other U.S. states need to take the Russian interference threat "seriously."
"Russian activities continue to pose a threat to the security of our elections, as Senators Nelson and Rubio rightly pointed out." Warner said.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian operatives targeted the 2016 presidential race with a hacking and social media disinformation campaign to try to tilt the election in President Donald Trump's favor.
They said they found no evidence that vote tallies were changed in the 2016 election, but they have since warned that Russian agents have continued their efforts to interfere and are now targeting the November 6 congressional elections.