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Despite Improvements, Concerns Remain About 2020 Election Security

Employees at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office calibrate machines before counting ballots, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Lauderhill.
Wilfredo Lee
Employees at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office calibrate machines before counting ballots, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Lauderhill.

With the presidency on the ballot this year, there are real fears of attempts by foreign powers to interfere in Florida’s election. Increasing election security is a priority for local, state and federal officials.

Millions of tax dollars are being spent to shore up election security and to reassure voters that their votes will count. In addition to the cyber-threats, Florida has a history of close elections, and trouble with recounting close votes.

This year, Florida’s county officials are on the front lines to identify problems.

The Florida Roundup took a close look at election security and what problems remain in this crucial year for voters. Tammy Jones, president of Florida Supervisors of Elections, and Ion Sancho, the former elections supervisor for Leon County, joined hosts Tom Hudson and Melissa Ross.

The Florida Roundup: Tammy, let's start with you. How concerned are you about Secretary of State Laura Lee's reminder that threats to our election security in Florida are constant, as she says, and evolving with attempts to hack in, happening almost every single day?

TAMMY JONES: That's a good question, and I want to assure the public that Florida supervisors are taking every effort and treating this as their top priority. We have accomplished a lot in the last years and we are proud to be the first state to all be on the Albert system, which will detect any intrusion, unlike 2016. We did not even know what Albert was. We are working with state federal agencies and to ensure that we are ready and prepared. And she said, you know, it's ever changing and we have to stay on top of it and we can never let our guard down.

The Florida Roundup: Tammy, describe that alert system you mentioned, that supervisors will have in 2020 that they didn't have in 2016. How does that work and what will it tell election supervisors across the state?

JONES: It's actually a system that is able to detect any intrusion into our system. For example, if the electricity goes off, I'll get an alert saying, ‘Hey, there's something going on in your system.’ Any type of unusual IP addresses that looks like it's hitting the outside of our firewall. Of course, nothing's inside the firewall per se, but it's something that we know it works. Not that we've had any problems.

But, for example, in my county we have power outages some time in a whole county and that actually will when we lose our Internet connectivity, for example. But the main purpose of it is to ensure that any type of intrusion or unusual activity is key.

That unusual activity is reported and we can immediately respond. So that's very important, that the immediate response is very important in situations. If you were to get ransomware or something like that, that you could immediately turn things off and act appropriately.

The Florida Roundup: According to Secretary of State Lee, all 67 Florida counties are using this Albert system. Ion Sancho, you're a retired supervisor of elections from Leon County, Tallahassee, and you're well known, I think it's fair to say, as a strong advocate sounding the alarm about the vulnerabilities of our system. What are your top concerns heading into 2020?

ION SANCHO: Well, first of all, I would like to congratulate the Florida supervisors of elections. They are working as hard as they can with the limited resources that they do have to essentially ensure that our election procedures will work as well as they can. I certainly have no criticism of the supervisor of elections, but they're not in charge of this process.

The Florida legislature is in charge of this process. And one of the major concerns that I have and I've shared with my associates for over a decade is the fact that the state of Florida does not audit its ballots. The audit provision that the state of Florida has in our statutes takes place after the certification of elections. And it is this audit that I believe is the missing key to ensuring that the votes on the piece of papers which are scanned by electronic optical machines and then transmitted electrically to wherever they're going and may be manipulated, particularly if you're using something, for example, like Wi-Fi or the Internet, which some of the systems have, which I completely argue against, no system may be transmitted on a digital system in this state.

My opinion there should be all hard wired, lined analog which are not penetrable by things such as a stingray device, which can hit any tower and manipulate numbers.

The Florida Roundup: I know we're going to talk about tabulation here a little bit later on in the program specifically, but I want to get back to your critique there about the audit after certification. This is the timeline, obviously, that happens after Election Day. Are you advocating that that timeline for certification be lengthened somehow?

SANCHO: Well, changed. For example, our audit comes after the certification period. Under Chapter 102, if, in fact, the audit determines that there was an error in an election, it may not be altered. You may not go to court unless you can prove fraud, mere mechanical error — an individual flipping a switch that provides wrong numbers to the supervisor of elections and then to the state. That's not correctable because the audit occurs after the certification period.

The certification period is — I'm not advocating that it be extended. I'm advocating that the audit period be a part of the regular recount of any ballot that needs to be recounted in the state of Florida.

The Albert system is a wonderful system, it kind of reminds me of that commercial where you've got that bank guard standing there while a robbery is going on. And he says, 'There's a bank robbery going on. You've been warned. Oh, I can't interfere. That's not my job.’ Albert can't interfere. The job of intercepting and controlling that penetration actually is the function of the supervisor of elections. They've been warned. But the actual corrective measures to ensure that whatever kind of attack may occur. That's the issue. We don't know what we don't know.

The FBI has been penetrated. The national security, NSA has been penetrated. NASA has been penetrated.

Our banking institutions annually run deficits of $2 billion in losses for Internet fraud. It's all covered by insurance. That doesn't help the voting world. What we don't know is not going to protect us from what we don't know. But what we do know is if there has been a penetration to the system, that all of tabulation of votes, simply auditing the paper ballots which every county possesses ,would render such a penetration useless.

And so that's the No. 1 thing that I see Florida needing to do, is in fact, audit the ballots with a robust all audit to confirm to every voter in this state that every electronic figure that is generated is, in fact, true. We do not do that today because even the recounts that we had in the three statewide elections in December. In fact, those numbers changed from the first official results on the Saturday.

The Florida Roundup: More than once, as I recall. Yeah.

SANCHO: Well, actually, they changed several times in several jurisdictions and that's not supposed to occur. That's probably me a human error.

The Florida Roundup: Let Tammy to react to that. What about this concern being raised by Ion Sanchez? Does. Do the states’ supervisors need to take this additional step of auditing the paper ballots to shore up confidence in the vote?

JONES: We do an audit. I think what he's talking about is providing the audit during a recount as well. Let me start first with we do logic and accuracy tests before each election. So we take the card that's actually being used in the election. We have random sampling of ballots that we know the predetermined number and it can be changed, or we can do what we need to do.  But, that is done in front of the public.

They can ask questions and we're there. We encourage the public to attend these meetings to learn more about the actual equipment. But that test is actually done to ensure that all the proper programing is done to ensure that oval goes to the correct person.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Denise Royal
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