Florida and FBI huddle to game worst-case Election Day scenarios

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Florida is being closely watched going into the November elections in part because it was targeted by Russian hackers four years ago. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

TALLAHASSEE — Florida election supervisors huddled with the FBI and state and local law enforcement on Wednesday to game a series of nightmare scenarios heading into Election Day.

The scenarios envisioned “American Patriots” protesters blockading polling places, ransomware hitting election servers, mail-in ballots mysteriously disappearing, and fake social media accounts warning that polling locations had been turned into coronavirus testing sites, according to an agenda of the meeting obtained by POLITICO.

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The meeting was closed to the public for security reasons, said Mark Ard, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Laurel Lee. POLITICO obtained a unclassified copy of the agenda and listened to the first few minutes of the gathering.

Lee told election supervisors on the video conference that the exercise was designed to prepare for “worst-case scenarios.”

Maria Matthews, director of the state Division of Elections, told supervisors in an email before the meeting that the exercise was intended to help supervisors map out responses to certain events, determine how law-enforcement should react, and gauge whether to make a public statement.

The tabletop exercise came less than 48 hours after Florida’s registration portal crashed under the weight of heavy traffic hours before an Oct. 5 deadline. An initial review did not show any outside interference or “malicious activity” affecting the site, Lee said in a statement Tuesday.

Lee on Wednesday told supervisors attending the training exercise that the state had added servers and increased load capacity in anticipation of a rush before the deadline.

“We worked really hard to be ready,” she said.

Florida is being closely watched going into the November elections in part because it was targeted by Russian hackers four years ago. State officials did not learn until last year that Russians had hacked into the voter registration systems of two counties.

A Senate Intelligence Committee report in July 2019 revealed that officials in “State 2” — which lines up with Florida — were incredulous when they were told that their voter registration systems had been hacked. State 2’s secretary of state and elections director told the committee in December 2017 that there was “never an attack on our systems” and “we did not see any unusual activities. I would have known about it personally,” according to the report.

Florida counties have received more than $15 million in federal election security grants over the past two years. The Department of State also provided supervisors — elected and appointed officials in the state’s 67 counties — with $1.9 million in state funds to purchase and install network monitoring sensors, a system known as Albert, to detect cyber threats and alert officials when data might be at risk.

Florida legislators this spring agreed to spend $1.3 million to set up a 10-person cybersecurity unit inside the Department of State. Legislators had rejected the request in 2019, before the successful Russian hack became known.

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