TALLAHASSEE – A new book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward claims that in 2016 Russian hackers successfully broke into the voter records of St. Lucie County, a county electoral officer who was previously rejected in interviews with POLITICO.
The identity of two counties accessed by Russians during the last presidential election has been a mystery since Special Adviser Robert Mueller announced in 2019 that Russian hackers had broken into electoral registration systems in the battlefield state.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security briefed Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Congress delegation of the Russian attack in May 2019 and announced that hackers had accessed files in two districts. No vote counts were affected, but federal officials asked that the names of the two districts be kept confidential.
POLITICO identified Washington County in the Florida Panhandle as one of the two counties last year.
A senior official had privately identified St. Lucie as the second county. St. Lucie County’s Election Officer Gertrude Walker and her system administrator John Spradlin informed POLITICO in December 2019 that their system had not been infiltrated.
“I would be the first to know about it. I’m the IT guy, ”Spradlin said in an interview at an election officers conference at a central Florida golf resort.
Spradlin said federal officials had not given the county any information that could suggest its systems had been compromised during the 2016 election.
“Nothing happened in 2016,” said Spradlin.
St. Lucie, like other counties, has received a phishing email alert from a voter registration provider designed to mimic them, he said.
“All we knew was about those phishing emails,” Spradlin said. Any speech by Russians breaking into voter registration systems in St. Lucie “would be news to me,” he said in 2019.
Walker stood next to Spradlin and answered questions about the Russians.
Walker, a Democrat, could not immediately be reached for comment late Thursday.
State officials were shocked by the news.
“This is very, very, very worrying to me that this has happened in St. Lucie County, especially this controversial election season,” said Senator Gayle Harrell, who represents much of St. Lucie County. “I will definitely be reaching out to Gertrude Walker to hear directly from her about what she has done to ensure our electoral infrastructure in the county is safe.”
CNN reported on a pre-copy of Woodward’s book, saying it had identified the counties of St. Lucie and Washington as the two Florida jurisdictions that the Russians had successfully violated.
Washington County with around 25,000 residents is located in the middle of the Panhandle. Trump received 77 percent of the more than 11,000 votes cast in the county in 2016.
Trump won St. Lucie in 2016 with less than 50 percent of the nearly 141,000 votes cast. Former President Barack Obama had won the county four years earlier.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) Said the details disclosed in Woodward’s book show why local and state officials need to be notified when electoral systems are violated.
“These reports continue to show how many voters are being unwisely kept in the dark by our government for interference in elections, and how this confusion only serves to destabilize confidence in our democracy,” Murphy said in a written statement. “We cannot defend ourselves against foreign interference if voters are unaware of potential interference and cannot take steps to verify the integrity of their voting information.”
Republican Brian Mast reiterated his call for the information to be released and asked Walker for a report on any internal changes she had made.
“At least a year ago, I and most of the Florida delegation asked for information to be released,” he said. “It still wasn’t that I couldn’t talk about what I knew from secret briefings.”
Matt Dixon and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.