TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — In a state where vote tallying frequently goes deep into the night, or sometimes extends over many days, Florida officials have long sought to shed the Sunshine State’s reputation as the national poster child for elections gone wrong.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who himself won by a razor-thin margin in 2018, will soon decide the fate of a bill now on his desk that would allow local elections officials across the state’s 67 counties to use a secondary system meant to speed up recounts and more quickly verify the accuracy of election results.
“Elections in Florida are extremely close. They tend to decide the outcome of presidential elections, or the balance of power in Congress,” said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley, who helped pushed the measure through the Florida House and Senate. Both chambers approved the legislation earlier this week, even though opponents argued that the bill prioritizes speed over election security.
The measure would give all 67 supervisors of elections the option of using auditing systems, also known as “automatic tabulating equipment,” to process ballots in a recount. The machines would be separate — and different — from the machines and software used for the initial ballot counts.
While some local jurisdictions now employ similar systems, Florida could be the first to deploy a statewide network that employs a dual ballot-counting system.
“It’s imperative we get it right in Florida,” Earley said. “We have close elections, therefore we have recounts.”
But despite the promise of faster election night results, there are concerns about how secure the added system might be — particularly at a time when the state is under scrutiny over possible breaches.
Last year, DeSantis ordered his secretary of state — Florida’s chief elections officer — to launch a review of election security amid revelations that Russian hackers infiltrated election systems in at least two Florida counties.
The state has declined to release any of its findings to protect against further vulnerabilities.
Since then, the state has pumped millions of dollars into beefing up staffing to strengthen cybersecurity.
Patricia Brigham, the president of League of Women Voters Florida, urged the governor to veto the legislation, saying she remains concerned about the possibility of tampering because only one vendor — Clear Ballot of Boston — is currently eligible to supply the machines and software for the secondary system.
“We think there could be possible election security risks,” Brigham said. “If you’re looking at a recount process, that is something that is extremely serious and has to be done effectively and in a timely manner of course. But it shouldn’t be done with the idea that speed is the utmost importance.”
Also of concern is how Clear Ballot’s system relies on digital images of the original paper ballots for its recounts or audits.
That could lead to possible mischief, according to Dan McCrea, the president of Florida Voters, an advocacy group.
“This image check is quick and it provides a sense of security. But it’s a false sense of security and leaves Florida elections more vulnerable to hacking,” he said.
“We call on Governor DeSantis not to sign it to protect Florida election security and national security both,“ McCrea said.
McCrea and Brigham said recounts should involve the original physical ballots, instead of what they asserted are hackable electronic images.
But Earley, the Leon County elections supervisor, downplayed the security risks. He noted that the dual system would rely on machines independent of each other. Paper ballots, he said, would continue to be preserved.