Florida readies for a secure 2020 vote

To Marion Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox, the impact of misinformation on election security is like smallpox.

“We didn’t get rid of it in one day or even one year,” he said, “but we just had to start. Start inoculating people, start educating people. We need to take steps.”

Casting a ballot has come under more scrutiny than ever before with election security at the forefront of voters’ minds since the 2016 presidential election. To battle potential threats to Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently distributed about $5.1 million throughout the state.

The Villages is no exception to these worries.

Wilcox noted that “Florida is a huge target” for those looking to influence U.S. elections.

“We are the largest swing state in the U.S.,” he said. “That is a huge prize. I really feel the 2020 general election in November will be the biggest turnout election that we’ve ever had. We have more people than ever before, but I think interest is also going to be at an all-time high.”

However, there’s a variation in what election supervisors and advocates determine to be the biggest security threats. A growing fear of election inaccuracies ranging from computer hacking to ballots not being counted remains.

Security Breaches

A growing concern in the country is the vulnerability of U.S. elections with the use of electronic polls and computer ballot counting.

Susan Greenhalgh, programs vice president at National Election Defense Coalition, said problems in election security are especially difficult due to the combination of computer use and anonymity of the voting process.

The National Election Defense Coalition is a movement of cybersecurity experts, elections administrators, policymakers and advocates that aims to secure our elections technology through education and public policy.

If votes were taken by raising a hand, Greenhalgh said, it would be easy to verify how many votes were cast for each option, and if someone saw their vote was missed in a count, he or she could correct the problem.

“We have a secret ballot,” Greenhalgh said, “which is very, very important to the integrity of our elections, but it also creates a security issue. If machinery is somehow corrupted, you won’t know because there’s no way to go back and check like with other transactions. If you go to a bank, you get a receipt. That’s not how voting works.”

There’s a tendency to focus on computer hacking as the primary source of misrepresentation in elections, but Aubrey Jewett — a political science professor at the University of Central Florida — noted paper ballots are no less susceptible to mistakes.

“Sometimes baskets of ballots appear,” he said. “Sometimes things get misplaced. The potential for old-fashioned election tampering – in the sense of paper ballots – is there.”

The two keys to preventing security breaches in elections are in recognizing that security needs to be maintained “from the very start of the process to the very end” and that security efforts continue to get funding, he said.

As far as security measures go, Jewett said Florida does “quite a bit, but it is a constant battle,” and computer hacking is one of the larger security threats facing U.S. elections.

“As anyone who has dealt with computers and software knows, viruses and security threats evolve over time,” he said. “You have to be constantly vigilant to stay on top of those threats and to make sure you’re not vulnerable.”

Florida has some systems in place to stop “outright vote-stealing,” Jewett said. For instance, the vote tabulating machines at each precinct are not hooked up to the internet, so they’re not easily hacked.

“It doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels by any means ’cause hackers are always hacking,” he added. “Even though the tabulating machines are not connected to the internet, there’s the worry that people can hack in and change the vote totals at the (Supervisor of Elections) Office.”

Other “old-fashioned” election hacks also could include people filling in absentee ballots for dead family members or registering to vote in two states, one of the bigger potential issues for Florida, which has a large population of voters who have residences in another state.

Even locally, tri-county supervisor of elections offices recently warned residents about Florida voter registration applications that weren’t from their offices. Some of the applications mailed to Florida residents were addressed to minors, pets, already-registered voters or deceased family members.

Local Funding

Local elections offices received funds on July 8 to be used for election security improvements. Grant awards vary from about $450 to more than $500,000, depending on how much of the county’s original grant amount was left unspent from what was allotted last summer.

The funds disbursed at the beginning of July included $46,096 to Lake County, $12,140 to Marion County and $16,741 to Sumter County. In 2018, Lake County received about $242,000, Marion County received $268,000 and Sumter County received $119,000 to go toward election security.

“We are always continually tightening our security on all levels,” said Bill Keen, Sumter County supervisor of elections.

Keen said he couldn’t disclose the use of the money, but that Sumter County is preparing for the 2020 elections by updating all procedures, meeting the bilingual requirement, lining up all logistics, delivering equipment and getting poll workers trained.

“We use about 350 poll workers, so that’s the biggest preparation,” he said.

Wilcox said he was using the funds for heightened physical and cyber security, but that he couldn’t get into specifics.

There is no specific amount of funding or tangible security measures to act as the ultimate goal for maximum security, Wilcox said.

“It’s a race that we’ve gotten into that we’re going to run for the entirety of our lives,” he said. “There is no finish line.”

Lake County Supervisor of Elections Alan Hays said part of his allotted funding will be used to obtain an electricity generator, to use if the office loses power. He had hoped to obtain the generator in 2018 but wasn’t able to.

Some of the money was used to enhance network security issues, but Hays didn’t want to provide more details than that.

The office had some other processes officials were able to improve, such as electronic poll books and early voting equipment, he said. The funds also allowed the office to open another early voting site.

Hays said a large part of Lake County’s security plans include multiple layers of security and avoidance of the internet for voter tabulation.

“We are able to report results with a very high degree of confidence that we’re good and secure,” he said. “Another huge factor is we have perpetual monitoring on every internet address that interacts with our system. We have a record of that, and we get reports and alerts.”

Lake County’s security measures are often out of an abundance of caution and that “we’re sitting in a very good position,” Hays said.

“I don’t think we’re inadequately protected at all,” he said.

Verifying Votes and Other Information

Voters also can protect themselves on a personal level. For Wilcox, that means fighting misiniformation.

“Rumors get out and are repeated and repeated enough until, all of the sudden, they become true,” he said. “I think our biggest challenge we’re going to face is the deluge of misinformation.”

A false story gaining legs can make the jobs of elections supervisors and others more difficult as a result, Wilcox said. He said the best way voters can help negate this security issue is by educating themselves and verifying the truth of a story before passing it along.

“Don’t just rely on one person sending you this email,” he said, “kind of vet the story a little bit.”

If you educate yourself with reliable sources and don’t take just one source, Wilcox said, the likelihood of spreading false information declines.

The best way for voters to help maintain election integrity is to notify the Supervisor of Elections Office if their address, name, or other part of their information changes, Hays said.

“You need to stay ahead of the curve instead of trying to play catch-up,” he said. “Voter confidence is our number one commitment, and we want voters to come out and vote and know their vote is being counted accurately.”

On a national level, Greenhalgh’s organization, NEDC, has proposed a post-election auditing system, called risk-limiting audit, to protect against ballot mistakes or miscounted votes with the use of physical ballots.

Risk-limiting audits are routine manual checks of randomly selected paper ballots used to check computer tallies. The number of ballots needed to check accuracy varies depending on the margin of victory, with more ballot reviews needed for closer contests.

“If results are in alignment, then everything is good,” Greenhalgh said. “If you see anomalies or irregularities, then you do an audit.”

The audit is wholly dependent on the use of paper ballots, which Greenhalgh said would add to security by being less susceptible to computer software hacking.

Some calculations Greenhalgh reported hearing have estimated risk-limiting audits costing about $25 million total for each election cycle and for federal elections only.

“It’s a bargain at twice that rate to have that assurance,” she said.

Only three states have adopted this or a variant of this security measure — Colorado, New Mexico and Rhode Island — but Greenhalgh said somewhere between 10 and 12 states do a post-election audit that won’t escalate to a recount if discrepancies are noted.

“The problem is, if the vote count difference isn’t so profound that you can see it, you would just accept the results,” she said, “and they would be wrong.”

Despite the cry for a more secure system growing since the 2016 presidential election, only Rhode Island has passed risk-limiting audits since then.

Florida already has an audit system in place, but Greenhalgh described it as “very weak and unfortunately not something you can rely upon to catch and check for errors in the outcome.”

“We need to have post-election audits that can be reliably checked,” she said. “This sounds picky, but we’re talking about elections — the very base of our democracy.”

Alexandria Mansfield is a writer with The Villages Daily Sun. She can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or alexandria.mansfield@thevillagesmedia.com.