WASHINGTON — The majority of Florida’s 67 counties were forced to forfeit thousands of dollars in election security funding from the federal government ahead of the 2018 midterms, according to documents obtained by Spectrum News from the Florida Department of State. 

A Spectrum News investigation found the majority of election officials across the state believe strict guidelines and short deadlines put in place by the state forced them to return more than $1 million in untapped funds to the State’s federal trust fund.

Florida has emerged as ground zero in preventing hacking and Russian interference after the Mueller report revealed Russia successfully hacked election systems in two Florida counties in 2016.

“This is the backbone of our democracy, it’s just too important,” said Brian Corley, the Supervisor of Elections in Pasco County in an interview with Spectrum News. 

"The bad guys have to be right one time, we have to be right every time,” he added.

Federal funding

The federal government took action last year, dishing out $380 million in election security grants in March 2018 to states across the country through the Help America Vote Act, also known as HAVA.

The state of Florida received about $19.2 million. In the state’s application, addressed to the the U.S Election Assistance Commission, the agency that runs the federal grant program, they specified they planned to use the funds for cyber security, physical security, risk assessment, post election audits, and voting system upgrades.

According to public records, 58 counties were forced to return a combined $1.4 million to the states’ federal trust fund after the 2018 midterm.

Counties large and small returned a staggering amount of federal funding.

Volusia County gave back 25 percent of the funds the state provided them -- $95,000. Jefferson County returned 38 percent of their grant funding, more than $22,000. Manatee County neglected to spend over 53 percent of the federal funds allocated to them, $138,000.

Only nine counties completely spent all of their available cash.

“It was disappointing and frustrating,” Corley explained.

Pasco County returned nearly $80,000 after last year’s election, although Corley maintains that wasn’t his preference.

“It’s not a matter of we returned it so it’s not needed -- it was returned because of an arbitrary rule set forth by the administraton, he said.

Corley is not alone. Spectrum News reached out to local election offices in all of Florida’s 67 counties, and others shared similar experiences.

“It really truly was a challenge for counties to spend the money,”said Paul Lux, the Supervisor of Elections in Okaloosa County.

Election officials on time crunch

In 2018, local elections officials had just weeks to tell the state in writing how they planned to spend the cash. Many say that scrambling could have been avoided if the previous Secretary of State, Ken Detzner, applied for the grant when it was originally released. Instead, he took action nearly two months after the funds were made available.

“We had, I believe until mid-July. The funds were not distributed to us until early August, and you can imagine, that’s the worst possible time, preparing for a primary,” Corley said.

An October surprise also proved to be difficult for many counties in the Panhandle.

“We had a major hurricane, and then we had all the prep for a major election,” Lux explained.

The state’s self-imposed rules added to the problems. Florida required the counties to spend all the money they received in 2018, mandated that cash could not be spent on reimbursements for previous expenses and often prevented them from moving funds to other parts of the budget.

“If you estimated something to be a certain cost and it came in lower, you were not able to tap into those funds, and that was part of the issue, and part of what you saw being returned to the state,” Corley said.

“This was the first time that we were told that in essence, you had just a few months to come up with your plan, submit your plan, have it approved and, spend those dollars by elections day. That was frustrating,” he added.

Smaller counties faced even more obstacles in spending the money. Lux says the state’s restrictions prevented him from using the funds for ongoing critical needs.

“You could sign up for a company to come in and do spearfishing training... that's great, but what do you do next year when you don’t have the money? You’re not allowed to order a subscription for that and pre-pay,” Lux emphasized.

Stringent policies

Many elections officials are wondering why the previous administration imposed stringent policies, which caused counties overseeing elections in Florida to rush in their decision making, when states had until 2023 to request the money set aside for them, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

“For the life of me, I’ve never been given an answer as to why and no one can tell me why that was. It was an unnecessary approach to be honest with you,” Corley said.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida), governor at the time, insists he had nothing to do with how the state implemented the federal grant.

“That was done through the Secretary of State’s Office, they made those decisions,” Scott said in an interview with Spectrum News.

According to the Florida Department of State, The federal election grant funds were also used to enhance security for the Florida Voter Registration System, hire five cybersecurity specialists to be a resource for state and local election officials, and conduct voter education and outreach.

The department also gave an additional $1,987,000 to Supervisors of Elections to expand and enhance accessible voting options for voters with disabilities. 

The state intends to use the $1.4 million in returned funds from the counties to enhance cyber security for future elections. 

This past legislative session, the state lawmakers granted the Department’s request to use $2.8 million in HAVA funding to enhance cybersecurity for our elections, which can be used in the 2019-2020 fiscal year beginning July 1, once the budget is signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The $2.8 million includes the $1.4 million in returned unspent funds from counties. The Florida Department of State has not yet decided how it will distribute that money, however, the state has already spent 85 percent of the funds from the federal grant awarded in 2018.

"The department is currently evaluating the best method for distributing the $2.8 million to support Supervisors of Elections and the state’s efforts to enhance cyber security for Florida’s elections,” said Sarah Revell, the Director of Communications for the Florida Department of State, in response to questions from Spectrum News.

"The Department is always evaluating ways to provide additional resources and funding to Supervisors of Elections,” she said.