How much should Florida trust technology in conducting elections?

Though Florida’s midterm election meltdown exposed administrative missteps, it also displayed Florida’s reliance on fallible humans and outdated systems to perform crucial, repetitive and sometimes subjective tasks.
Published March 5, 2019

A computer program might have avoided the entire 2018 recount fiasco and saved South Florida election officials days of embarrassment last year, if not their jobs.

Had the law allowed it, exhausted election workers in Broward and Palm Beach counties could have conducted recounts in races for the U.S. Senate, governor and agriculture commissioner in a matter of hours simply by running a series of queries on licensed software already at their fingertips. Instead, they toiled for days, unpacking and retabulating hundreds of thousands of paper ballots.

Broward lost thousands of ballots in the process. Palm Beach’s machines flamed out. And within weeks, Supervisors of Elections Brenda Snipes and Susan Bucher were out of office.

This legislative session, South Florida lawmakers in the House and Senate have filed bills to allow for the use of readily available software to conduct machine and manual recounts. The ask, requested by elections supervisors, is the clearest of several scenarios in which technology — an almost taboo topic in an era of Russian hacking — could improve Florida’s historically troubled election system.

"We need to use the best technology. It exists. It would have eliminated a lot of the problems in this election,” said Ion Sancho, former Leon County supervisor of elections.

Though Florida’s midterm election meltdown exposed administrative missteps and led to the widely publicized suspensions and resignations of Snipes and Bucher, it also displayed Florida’s reliance on fallible humans and outdated systems to perform crucial, repetitive and sometimes subjective tasks.

Intended to fine-tune already highly accurate election counts, machine recounts wound up producing less accurate results in several large counties amid power outages and mechanical and human errors. An appeals court ruled this month that the state’s process of using people to verify absentee ballots by matching signatures risks disenfranchising voters. And the delivery of those ballots by snail mail — a long-antiquated service — contributed to the disqualification of more than 10,000 votes.

Existing Technology

All of those problems could have been avoided through the use of readily available technology.

Broward’s election department, for example, already contracts with a vendor called Clear Ballot to scan in ballots, log their location and double-check tabulation. After elections, the state allows the county to conduct audits with the vendor’s software, which is able to identify every ballot, sort them by precinct or batch, and identify how they were counted. The program, which allows supervisors to display each ballot on a screen, is able to effectively perform machine recounts by retabulating ballots, and can sort out the undervotes and overvotes that are the subject of manual recounts.

But while Florida law allows for the use of software to tell supervisors if their elections results were valid, it doesn’t allow for the use of software to conduct recounts.

“If we could have used that system, it wouldn’t have been five days of 24-hour operation to meet the [recount] deadline. It would have been a couple of days, worst-case scenario,” said Jorge Nuñez, the IT director for Broward’s election office. “Once we push that button, it could take 30 minutes.”

The benefit isn’t only speed, according to those who use it. It’s more transparent, in that election supervisors can display every single ballot cast to the public, should they wish. And it’s more accurate: Allowing a recount to be conducted with independent software — which is also produced by Florida’s biggest election vendor, Election Systems & Software — ensures accuracy in the system used to count the initial vote and keeps ballots from being repeatedly handled.

“Every time a paper ballot is handled it’s put at risk. All it takes is a black pen or anything on your fingernail or a smudge or anything else to change a vote. Intentional or not intentional,” said Mark Andersen, supervisor of elections in Bay County, a small Panhandle jurisdiction of 119,000 voters.

Email and the Internet

Aside from Bucher and Snipes, no election supervisor was more scrutinized during the midterm elections than Andersen, who broke the law by allowing about 150 voters in his hurricane-ravaged county to either fax or email PDF images of their mail ballots and signed envelopes. The electronic transmission of domestic ballots was strictly deemed off-limits ahead of the election — Florida allows overseas voters to fax in their ballots — but Andersen said his voters and staff were so scattered and his precincts so damaged that he made an executive call.

“Tell me what the difference between a fax is and a pdf in the process?” Andersen said. “I think the simple issue is the Legislature or the understanding of the public hasn’t caught up with the capability.”

Controversy followed. Bill Nelson sued.

But Nelson’s lawsuit went nowhere, the state simply said it was up to supervisors to “adhere to the law,” and Andersen received a standing ovation from his peers during a December meeting in Sarasota. During the conference, Andersen and other supervisors suggested that the state should make email transmission of votes legal in cases of natural disasters, something former Secretary of State Ken Detzner also said should be considered before leaving office last month.

“I think it’s fraught with potential problems of hacking. But I think it’s worthy of conversation,” he said.

An expansion of email voting would all but eliminate problems associated with the U.S. Postal Service. Existing Florida law forces domestic voters to either drop off absentee ballots at election offices or send them by mail, which can mean a ballot gets to an election office days after it’s sent. More than 10,000 ballots were ruled invalid in November because they arrived after a 7 p.m. Election Day deadline, including about 6,000 in South Florida.

But few are willing to talk about allowing widespread internet-based voting, given the obvious pitfalls.

Russian hackers targeted Florida’s election offices and vendors in 2016, and security questions have lingered about online voting systems for years. A team of grad students set up by University of Michigan computer science professor J. Halderman was able to hack a D.C. elections board system in six hours in 2010. Two years later, Halderman was among four authors to publish a report about the incident, in which they noted that “one small mistake in the configuration or implementation of the central voting servers or their surrounding network infrastructure can easily undermine the legitimacy of the entire election.”

He continues to warn lawmakers that their elections systems are vulnerable.

Smart Phone Voting

But innovators won’t be dissuaded.

West Virginia is slowly rolling out an app that allows military service members stationed abroad, along with overseas voters in some counties, to vote on their smartphones. Called Voatz, the blockchain-based program uses facial recognition and fingerprint biometric software to confirm a voter’s identity before allowing a ballot to be transmitted from an iPhone to the proper election office.

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner teamed up with Uber lobbyist Bradley Tusk, who is pushing to legitimize and popularize voting-by-phone, to bring the app to the state. In the primaries, 13 people used the app. In November, that number jumped to nearly 150.

The app, which was ridiculed by the technology analysis website TechCrunch as a “terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea,” uses facial recognition software to verify a voter’s identity — a concept that has been floated as a way to take the subjectivity out of voter authentication.

In Florida, signatures are currently used to authenticate a ballot, and are run through handwriting recognition software before being inspected by staffers and canvassing boards in cases where legitimacy is questioned. That process was criticized heavily in the courts as evidence mounted that different counties use different standards.

“I don’t know if the country is ready to go in that sort of direction just yet,” said Thomas Hicks, the chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. “Signatures have still been looked at as one of the best ways to authenticate mail ballots.”

Hanging Chads

Florida and the U.S. have, in some ways, been snakebitten by technological voting upgrades.

Long before the fear of Russian hackers led to election security scares, the federal government released billions of dollars in grants to overhaul elections systems in the wake of the problems with punch-card ballots during the 2000 presidential recount. A move toward touch-screen machines was encouraged. But in only a few years most of that equipment was junked in favor of optical-scan paper ballots, which were deemed less susceptible to hacking and programming flaws.

“We tried to begin the process of easing into the 21st century technology-wise and we slid back into the 19th century,” said Pete Antonacci, recently appointed Broward supervisor of elections.

Whether 2019 will be the year that Florida embraces voting technology remains to be seen. Bills are moving through the Legislature to upgrade touchscreen technology for disabled voters to ensure that they receive a paper trail when they vote. And Florida has signaled its interest in becoming a member of ERIC, a database in which member states share voter registration data as a means of ensuring accurate registration information in cases where voters move or die.

But there’s no indication that there’s interest in turning the 2018 midterm election debate into a conversation about technology.

Miami Herald staff writers Sarah Blaskey and Kyra Gurney, and McClatchy DC reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report. This project was produced with the assistance of a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.