Amid cyber-worries, election tensions persist between counties and state

A panel of legislators on Thursday will finally approve the state's use of federal cyber-security money.
An election worker loads mail ballots in Pinellas County in 2016 [Scott Keeler - Times]
An election worker loads mail ballots in Pinellas County in 2016 [Scott Keeler - Times]
Published July 18, 2018|Updated July 18, 2018

Amid ongoing concern of new interference in Florida's elections, tensions persist between counties and Gov. Rick Scott's administration over how to use federal election security money.

The feds created a $380 million program for states to fortify their voting systems against the threat of cyber attacks. Florida, a battleground state where Russians tried and failed to penetrate systems in 2016, remains an obvious target.

READ MORE: Rick Scott intervenes, orders state to apply for voting money

Now, the latest: Florida's Division of Elections has told counties that the state's $19 million share of new federal voting security money cannot be spent to reimburse counties for expenses already made.

Some counties acted on their own because the state applied for the money later than other states did.

"There are counties that have already expended county funds and they would like to be reimbursed for these things," said Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux.

Another concern is the deadline — today, July 18 — for counties to tell the state in writing how they would spend their shares. Counties that miss the deadline won't get any money, but the state has said it will allow them to revise their proposals.

"Yes, that is an issue. Yes, I have asked repeatedly for that deadline to be moved," Lux said. "My biggest fear of too fast of a deadline is that people may be tempted to spend money — I hate to say the word — frivolously or needlessly."

The state produced a series of questions and answers about the program. Read them here.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley described the state's handling of the money as "odd" and "almost laughable," especially the requirement that money must be spent by November or returned, the so-called "use it or lose it" provision.

"I can't figure out the rationale," Corley said. "Florida appears to be all alone in its parameters … We're all in the dark."

Corley said the new money should be able to help counties prepare for the 2020 presidential election because "the threat isn't going away."

Secretary of State Ken Detzner's spokeswoman, Sarah Revell, said unspent money can't be used "without further legislative approval." In a statement, she said: "The department will work with supervisors of elections, like we do prior to every legislative session, to assess and identify what the needs are based on the outcome of the 2018 election … We will then put forth a proposed plan to the Legislature during the 2019 session."

On Thursday, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission will meet for the first time in nearly a year to accept the federal money and give the state authority to spend it. That's a formality. See the LBC's agenda here.

"The department does not have an appropriation from the Legislature to spend this money," spokeswoman Revell said, "and if the (commission) approves our request on Thursday, we cannot retroactively apply the appropriation to costs incurred before we were granted the necessary budget authority."

The state has previously said that the money can be used for improvements for this election cycle only — not for future years.

"The primary focus of the election security grant is to enhance security in the 2018 election, " the state says.

Some counties say that's a bad idea. They ask why the state imposed a time limit when the U.S. Elections Assistance Administration, which runs the grant program, has said money can be requested for five years.

"States have until Sept. 30, 2023, to to request the funds and get the money in their accounts," EAC says on its web site.

"Hurry up and spend in government is never a good thing," said Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher.