Officials: Four arrests show seriousness of voting security

Ellen Mowles, of the Village of Bonnybrook, walks to the voting location at Laurel Manor Recreation Complex.

As the 2022 election year kicks off in full swing, officials are doubling down on efforts to ensure election integrity.

A fourth Villages resident was arrested Tuesday for voting more than once in the 2020 election, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Prosecutors allege that:

• A 72-year-old woman arrested on Nov. 29 voted in-person in Florida as a registered Republican and also cast an absentee ballot in New York.

• A 61 year-old man arrested Dec. 3 also cast ballots in Florida as well as new York. He has no party affiliation on record.

• A 63-year-old man arrested on Dec. 8 voted as a registered Republican by mail in Florida and also cast an absentee ballot in Michigan.

• The 64-year-old man, arrested Tuesday was also registered to vote in Connecticut with no party affiliation.

The investigation into allegations of voter fraud was initiated by the office of the Sumter County supervisor of elections, Bill Keen.

“For our office, it's something you're always looking for,” Keen said. “The public may not always think about it, but we do.”

While many of the details surrounding election security are protected, the process starts long before Election Day.

A year before 2020’s contentious election that saw baseless claims of widespread voter fraud by President Donald Trump, Florida joined the Electronic Registration Information Center, a nonprofit that improves the accuracy of voter rolls.

The system allows officials to crosscheck voting data to find duplicate activity.

Supervisors match data with Florida's Bureau of Vital Statistics and against the Social Security Administration's Death Master File, so people who have died are removed from the eligible voter list.

The list is continually updated. From the beginning of 2021 to mid-December, Wilcox said, he removed almost 5,500 people in Marion County who died and more than 6,000 people who left the county.

“The tools that have developed over the past few years continue to make elections in the state of Florida more secure,” said Wesley Wilcox, Marion County elections supervisor and Florida Supervisors of Elections association president. “There's a myth that dead people are voting or have voted on the rolls, and that's exactly what it is — a myth.”

Florida also uses paper ballots marked by pen, which provides an advantage when it comes to security: they can be manually counted.

Voter registration forms and the ballot itself are scrutinized at several steps for forgery and mistakes.

"We're very proud of our security measures," said Alan Hays, Lake County's supervisor of elections. "We're very proud of our administration of the election. It's what the people of Lake County have entrusted me to do."

 Keen said his team meets weekly to discuss election security and assure citizens that their votes are safe.

"People are really engaged in elections, more vocally, more on social media,” he said. “It's not any one party or anything, it's just the way it is now. If you win, it's a great election. If you lose, maybe there's a problem. And that's all over the nation.”

As for the 2022 election, "My guess is we're going to be under the magnifying glass for sure," Keen said. "But Florida has proven over the years that there's a lot of integrity built into our system."

Although voter fraud is extremely rare — last year Florida’s Secretary of State sent only 75 cases to law enforcement —Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to tighten security protocols further.

Last year, he signed laws limiting the number of ballot drop boxes and mail-in boxes.

This year, he’s asked state lawmakers to approve $5.7 million to create an Office of Election Crimes and Security, the first of its kind in any state.

The proposed office would employ 45 investigators who would have the power to take over any investigation conducted by local police or prosecutors.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who represents The Villages and chairs the Senate’s Ethics and Elections Committee, said he is taking the governor’s request seriously but cautiously.

Specialty Editor Leah Schwarting can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5375, or leah.schwarting@thevillagesmedia.com.