No, Bill Nelson’s Florida Election Hacking Claim Is Not Vindicated

Bill Nelson
Bill Nelson / Getty Images

There were a lot of high fives on lefty Twitter this afternoon after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced the FBI had informed his state that Russian hackers gained access to voter databases in two counties before the 2016 presidential election. This, they claim, is vindication for former Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, who warned of Russian hacking in the Florida's electoral system during the 2018 election. Many gleefully noted the Washington Post Fact Checker had (evidently erroneously) given Nelson "Four Pinocchios" for his claims.

MSNBC's Chris Hayes, former Obama flack Dan Pfeiffer, Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffrey, and NY Mag's Jonathan Chait have all gotten in on the action on Twitter. Even some media outlets are claiming vindication for Nelson in straight news stories. "Last year, former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson warned that Russia had ‘penetrated' Florida's voter registration systems, but election officials denied that vehemently at the time," writes NPR. "Then-Gov. Rick Scott, who defeated Nelson in the Senate race, decried Nelson's claims and said they ‘only serve to erode public trust in our elections at a critical time.'"

But Nelson didn't get in trouble for claiming the Russians hacked Florida during the 2016 election. Washington Post‘s Salvador Rizzo made that extensively clear during his fact-check. Instead, he fact-checked Nelson's multiple claims that the Russians were currently swimming around Florida's electoral records [bolding is mine].

"At the urging, I might say, of the chairman and vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, we wrote and signed a joint letter to all 67 county supervisors of election to tell them that the Russians are in Florida’s records. And they need help…

Q: "Do you mean right now, or were you referring to 2016?" A: "Right now We were requested by the chairman and vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee to let the supervisors of election in Florida know that the Russians are in their records. … Two senators — bipartisan — reached out to the election apparatus in Florida to let them know that the Russians are in the records, and all they have to do, if those election records are not protected, is to go in and start eliminating registered voters."

"In June, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee… came to Marco Rubio and me and said: ‘We have a problem in Florida, that the Russians are in the records"

"It would be foolish to think that the Russians are not continuing to do what they did in Florida in 2016."

That second and fourth quotes are particularly relevant. It was widely acknowledged at the time that Russia attempted to penetrate Florida's voter rolls in 2016. Nelson was asked specifically if he was talking about the 2016 election, and said no, he was talking about the 2018 election. To take the FBI's acknowledgement the Russians successfully hacked voter databases in 2016 as evidence he was right about 2018 is incorrect.

"Nelson [made] a specific and alarming claim several times: that Russia currently has access to Florida’s election systems and could purge voters from the rolls," Rizzo ruled. "Not a single speck of evidence backs him up, and we have serious doubts whether the classified information he cited even exists."

I'm not sure how Stein in particular managed to scroll through an entire piece to snarkily screenshot the Four Pinocchios while missing that Nelson was chastised by the Post for a completely different claim. It's a shame his screenshot cuts off the preceding paragraph: "Nelson misquoted his own letter from July 2 several times (it made no mention of an ongoing breach) and inaccurately said Burr, Rubio and Warner reaffirmed his assertion that Russia has access to Florida voters' records."

I suppose it's possible Nelson might be vindicated by future disclosures, but right now the victory lap is premature. In any case, if Nelson's claim is ever vindicated, that means he's only guilty of leaking classified information to sway an election, so … good for him I guess?