Counties fault Rick Scott’s staff over voting money conditions

They say state requirements are too rigid and appear 'devoid of logic,' one supervisor says.
Hillsborough County ballots in the fall elections will be loaded with Democrats, the local party says. [Times files]
Hillsborough County ballots in the fall elections will be loaded with Democrats, the local party says. [Times files]
Published June 29, 2018|Updated June 29, 2018

County elections officials and Gov. Rick Scott's administration are at odds again, this time over new state requirements on how millions of dollars in cyber-security money can be spent across the state.

Florida was awarded $19.2 million from the feds in March, and most of the money is to help counties fortify their voting equipment against the ever-present threat of cyber-attacks from Russia and elsewhere, as they plan primary and general elections.

First, counties accused the state of slow-walking an application for federal help. Scott had to personally intervene in May and direct Secretary of State Ken Detzner to seek the money.

BACKGROUND: Rick Scott overrules elections chief on security money

Soon after the check arrived, the state told all 67 counties that they must file detailed applications for their share no later than July 18.

In addition, the state said the cyber-security money is for this election cycle only, and any money counties receive that is unspent must be returned to Tallahassee in November. This is known as a "use it or lose it" provision, which encourages counties to spend their money as fast as possible.

Those requirements are in a memorandum of agreement the state sent to counties.

It may seem paradoxical that elections officials who complained that the money was late in arriving are frustrated with a tight application window. But it's almost July and they are laying out the primary election ballot and soon will have to mail ballots to overseas and military voters.

"This money is for election security for this election cycle," said Detzner's spokeswoman, Sarah Revell. "Many supervisors have expressed that they want this funding given to them for that purpose quickly."

Counties say the strings the state attached are overly burdensome and don't make sense.

"The timing and the restrictions are somewhat devoid of logic," said Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. "I'm not sure why we have additional restrictions solely at the discretion of the secretary (Detzner) … It's almost as if politics are permeating election administration."

Corley's not alone. The Times/Herald contacted counterparts in Pinellas, Polk and Leon counties, all of whom expressed similar objections to the state's funding requirements.

"The time lines are very tight," Pinellas' Deborah Clark said. "You're seeing time lines being set by people who don't run elections."

Detzner's spokeswoman, Revell, said securing systems is a top priority for this cycle,and "we are working quickly to disburse funding to counties." She said the Joint Legislative Budget Commission is expected to meet sometime in July to approve spending the money.

"Supervisors asked the department to  work quickly to make the funds available to them, which is exactly what we are doing," Revell said in a subsequent statement. "The department has been urging supervisors to assess their security needs for the upcoming election for months, and we have given them ample time — four weeks — to submit their grant applications."

Returning unspent money makes no sense, Clark and other supervisors said, because the next presidential election in 2020 is lurking around the corner. Members of Congress and homeland security experts are all in agreement that Florida will continue to be a target for disruptions.

Polk Supervisor Lori Edwards said elections officials work far in advance, and they are weary of testing a new system — even a security system — close to an election.

"I'm very concerned that they're trying to rush this," Edwards said of the state. "It smacks of throwing money at the problem."

The state is keeping about $3.7 million of the $19.2 million. The remaining $15.5 million will be allocated based on eligible voters in each county.

Miami-Dade stands to get $1.6 million, Broward $1.2 million, Hillsborough $815,000, Pinellas $666,000 and Pasco $350,000.