The 2020 presidential race could come down to Florida. But unless drastic changes are made, election advocates believe the next presidential vote count in the Sunshine State will be yet another mess.
They say that Florida in 2018 once again served as an example of how not to run an election. Their concerns involve voting machines vulnerabilities and partisan election officials who lack necessary qualifications. And those officials repeatedly demonstrate that winning seems to be more important to them than democracy.
It doesn’t have to be that way, critics say. Florida has laws on the books that would allow it to run clean and transparent elections. They just aren’t being applied.
Election management continues to be a problem and it is lacking uniformity in procedures and practices. The destruction of ballot images during primary and general elections in 2018 and in previous elections in the state is a major issue for concerned Florida voters, who have filed a lawsuit against the state to ensure all Florida voting officials follow the law.
Associate Director Kitty Garber of Florida Fair Elections Coalition believes Florida needs to make fundamental changes to its election system if the state is to avoid another disaster in 2020. First for Garber is the problem of partisan election administrations. Unlike many other states, Florida elects its county supervisors of elections, as well as the secretary of state, who is responsible for running the state’s elections.
“We need to have people who have some credentials and experience running elections instead of just people who are capable of getting elected,” Garber told WhoWhatWhy. “Every time I say that to someone, they say, ‘Well, that’s not happening.’”
Garber acknowledges there are some county supervisors of elections who do a great job running their election departments. Garber considers Volusia County’s supervisor of elections, Lisa Lewis, an outstanding elections supervisor in Florida.
“[Lisa Lewis] is transparent,” Garber said. “She also has qualifications. She worked for the department for a long time before she ran for supervisor of elections.”
During the statewide machine recount, Volusia county came up 240 votes short in six election recounts: Edgewater City Council District 1, Volusia County Council District 1, state representative District 26, the state commissioner of agriculture, governor, and US senator.
“She admitted there was a problem. In other places, they had the same problems, but people didn’t admit it,” Garber said. “She went back and did it right, found out what went wrong.”
During the election recount in Volusia, the DS850 voting machines encountered several malfunctions. After recounting X number of ballots, sometimes the machines read zero. Another problem was simply jamming — ballots weren’t counted, or it appeared they had been counted but had not in reality. Garber said Lewis had the malfunctioning DS850 taken out, and, at one point in time, there were ES&S technicians working on bad machines. A day after a failed recount, the Volusia elections department finished properly and reported its results to the state.
“[Lewis] decided that she wanted them to be accurate,” Garber said.
Uniform Voting Procedures
Garber said the second issue is uniform voting procedures, which she believes is more likely to be addressed. Last year’s midterms made it clear to everyone that the state’s 67 election offices are operating under a hodgepodge of procedures, standards, and policies.
“The problem with the state of Florida is that they want to dictate the details without taking any responsibility for the larger process,” Garber said. “What they want is to just get it over with. They want it done. That’s essentially their goal — done.”
Garber wants to see uniform ballot designs and people who know what they’re doing to design the ballot.
“That means the state needs to develop training programs for county elections staff involved in ballot design,” Garber said. “Proposed ballot designs should undergo usability testing. And the state needs to take responsibility for approving ballot designs.”
Photo credit: WhoWhatWhy
Garber noted the standards for ballot design have been long-standing. Both the Brennan Center for Justice and the US Election Assistance Commission published guidelines for ballot design more than a decade ago. The Brennan Center’s 2008 publication, Better Ballots, details issues that occured in 2018 such as poor ballot designs and lost/misrecorded votes. And the center published articles as late as the beginning of 2018, ahead of the midterm, detailing concerns with antiquated voting machines still being used in US election departments.
Garber also said the state should mandate strict, uniform security procedures to be followed by the counties, instead of allowing each county to develop its own. If these issues aren’t addressed, she believes the problems of the past will continue, and the state may once again be “the laughing stock of the world,” as US District Judge Mark Walker said of the state during the recounts.
Verifying Elections Is Possible
John Brakey, director of AUDIT-USA, was pleased to see a tandem system being used to verify elections in Broward County. Unfortunately, this system was abandoned as soon as the recount began.
The idea of a tandem or redundant system would start with election precincts running the paper ballot once — creating the first ballot image, which gets counted for the election results. Next, the paper ballot would get put through another digital scanner that is totally isolated, creating ballot image number two. The end result would be three references for one voter’s decision in an election — a paper ballot and two digital copies. Brakey wants to take that even further.
“These things could be put online by precinct to audit,” Brakey said. “That would be like a third system. That would be great redundancy.”
On top of that, Brakey believes Florida is perfectly set up to allow for audits using public records; as Brakey says, voting is a secret process and counting is a public process. That is why he believes it’s a voter’s right to have an election system that is transparent, trackable, and publicly verified when it comes to the results.
Any voter can go to his or her election department and make public records requests for the results of the election, and the department should give the time frame it needs to provide materials and how much the records request will cost. This is stipulated in the Florida Statutes and applies to any form of public records request in Florida. Brakey believes if more voters did this, election departments would make it available online rather than through request.
But, until that happens, voters and organizations like AUDIT-USA find election departments in the state continue to violate Florida law — whether supervisors realize it or not. The ballot images created during an election must be saved for 22 months after an election, but most of the results gathered in 2018 from the primary and general election have already been destroyed. This was discovered by concerned voters after making public records requests and speaking directly to elections supervisors. The goal for Brakey and concerned voters is to preserve the Florida recount now.
“Now, after learning that at least [64 percent] of ballot images in Florida for the November 6 election were destroyed … we are trying to facilitate the public verification of elections. We have filed a new record request going after the recount’s ballot images in Broward County and are amending our lawsuit with more hard facts,” Brakey said. “After all, that’s how cases are won — with facts.”