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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Woodward IDs Florida county targeted by Russians, a claim countered by local officials


TALLAHASSEE — A new book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward contends that Russian hackers successfully penetrated the voter files of St. Lucie County in 2016, a claim election officials in the county previously denied in interviews with POLITICO.

The identity of two counties accessed by Russians during the last presidential election has been a mystery since special counsel Robert Mueller disclosed in 2019 that Russian hackers had penetrated voting registration systems in the battleground state.

The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in May 2019 briefed Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida’s congressional delegation about the Russian attack and disclosed that hackers had accessed files in two counties. No vote totals were affected, but federal officials asked that the names of the two counties be kept confidential.

POLITICO last year identified Washington County in the Florida Panhandle as one of the two counties.

A high-level official privately had identified St. Lucie as the second county. But St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections Gertrude Walker and her systems administrator, John Spradlin, told POLITICO in December 2019 that their system had not been infiltrated.

“I would be the first guy to know about it. I’m the IT guy,” Spradlin said in an interview at a conference of state election supervisors held at a central Florida golf resort.

Spradlin said federal officials had given the county no information to suggest that its systems had been penetrated during the 2016 election.

“Nothing happened in 2016,” Spradlin said.

St. Lucie — like other counties — had received a warning about phishing emails designed to mimic ones from a voter registration system vendor, he said.

“All we knew about was the whole thing with those phishing emails,” said Spradlin. Any talk of Russians penetrating voter registration systems in St. Lucie “would be news to me,” he said in 2019.

Walker stood next to Spradlin as he answered questions about the Russians.

Walker, a Democrat, could not immediately be reached for comment late Thursday.

State officials met the news with shock.

“This is very, very, very concerning to me that this happened in St. Lucie County, especially going into this contentious election season,” said state Sen. Gayle Harrell, who represents a large portion of St. Lucie County. “I will certainly be reaching out to Gertrude Walker to hear from her directly about what she has done to make sure our county election infrastructure is safe.”

CNN, reporting on an advance copy of Woodward’s book, said it identified St. Lucie and Washington counties as the two Florida jurisdictions successfully breached by the Russians.

Washington County, which has roughly 25,000 residents, is in the middle of the Panhandle. Trump in 2016 received 77 percent of the more than 11,000 votes cast in the county.

Trump won St. Lucie in 2016 with less than 50 percent of nearly 141,000 votes cast. Former President Barack Obama had won the county four years earlier.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) said the details revealed in Woodward’s book show why local and state officials need to be notified when election systems are breached.

“These reports continue to demonstrate just how much voters are unwisely kept in the dark by our government about election meddling and how this confusion only serves to destabilize trust in our democracy,” Murphy said in a written statement. “We cannot fight back against foreign interference if voters are not aware of potential intrusions and cannot take steps to verify the integrity of their voting information.”

Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican, repeated his call for the information to be declassified and has asked Walker for a report on any internal changes she has made.

“At least a year ago myself and most members of the Florida delegation asked information on this to be declassified,” he said. “It still has not been so I cannot speak about what I know from classified briefings.”

Matt Dixon and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.



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