WASHINGTON — Fifty-five counties in Florida are getting a second chance to shore up their election systems ahead of the 2020 cycle, thanks to the redistribution of $2.3 million in unexpended funds from the state.
- 55 Florida counties getting extra election security funding
- State is redistributing $2.3 million in unspent funds
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This comes after a Spectrum News investigation found the majority of election officials across Florida believe strict guidelines and short deadlines put in place forced them to return more than $1 million in untapped funds to the state’s federal trust fund following the 2018 midterms.
The state has been in the national spotlight after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report revealed Russia successfully hacked election systems in two Florida counties in 2016.
“We are pleased and looking forward to moving forward with completing what we started,” said Brian Corley, Pasco County’s Supervisor of Elections in an interview with Spectrum News.
After the 2018 midterm elections, Pasco County returned $79,832.09 to the states’ federal trust fund. The county has now been allocated nearly the exact dollar amount, $79,832 to put toward boosting their election infrastructure.
“Unlike last time, this was considerably quite honestly more professional and smoother,” he explained.
Corley said he and other officials were very vocal about how the state’s tight restrictions in 2018 hindered their preparation, which he believes has resulted in changes.
“We were the only state in the nation to my knowledge that had our hands tied with that use it or lose it provision — and looking back it could have impacted decisions,” Corley said.
“We have not been made aware of any of those types of strings this time around. That’s the way it should be quite honestly,” he added.
The majority of the counties in Central Florida will be getting back the funds they were forced to forgo in 2018, with some receiving modest increases. Hillsborough County, for example, was awarded $25,683 from the state, $53 more than the county returned back in 2018.
“We took that $25,000, and we were able to put it toward other physical and cyber security concerns around our office,” said Craig Latimer, the county Supervisor of Elections.
Others saw major boosts in election security funding. Of the 55 counties receiving the grants, Orange County received the most – $524,838. Bill Cowles, the Supervisor of Elections there said those dollars will go toward upgrading tablets used to check in voters at polling locations.
“Because the information is electronically stored in there, we want to protect the voters' records,” Cowles said in an interview with Spectrum News.
Readiness ahead of 2020
With 252 days until the primary election in Florida, experts are still unsure if the state is equipped to handle threats from foreign adversaries.
“It’s a good additional amount of funds. I think that said -- we need to plan for the worst,” said Tom Gann, the chief public policy officer with cyber security firm, McAfee, which has played an active role in preparing states to improve their election infrastructure.
Gann believes many states are in need of additional resources ahead of 2020, emphasizing changes cannot be implemented overnight.
“Think about upgrading an election security environment the same way you word the same way that you would if you’re thinking about doing an addition on your house. It always takes more time than you think before your structure is 100 percent sound, and you’re entirely confident,” Gann explained.
“One of the most important things you have to do is test, test, test, test -- make sure your systems are actually really working. This takes some time. We can all work quickly. We can all work effectively, but the sooner we get started, the more leeway we have to get everything right,” he added.
Election officials in Florida appear to be on the same page.
“We’ve got a lot in place right now. I’m never going to say we have enough,” Craig Latimer said.
While Corley said he feels confident about Pasco County’s level of preparation, he’s not ready to rule out the need for additional dollars.
“The fact that the threats are constantly changing means additional resources are required,” he said.
The redirected funds are in addition to another $2.8 million the state has set aside for election security. However, Florida Secretary of State, Laurel Lee has not yet determined how and where those funds will be utilized. The state has slated a total of $5.1 million to go toward election security ahead of the 2020 presidential election.