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Faster Florida recount sought through just one vendor

Currently, nine counties — Bay, Broward, Columbia, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Nassau, Putnam, and St. Lucie — are prepared to use the equipment for the 2020 election cycle, but the legislation allows every county to use it.
Published Mar. 10, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — In the interest of speeding the process of recounting votes in a close election, the Florida House passed legislation Monday to allow county supervisors of elections to purchase special equipment to conduct both machine and manual recounts.

But there’s only one vendor — ClearAudit digital imaging system from Clear Ballot Group of Boston — and the prospect that the state could be dependent on a single proprietary software tool has supporters worried that security could be undermined.

“Technology is a tool not a process. This recount concept is not ready for prime time,” said Liza McClenaghan, Common Cause Florida state board chair.

Both Common Cause and the League of Women Voters say the technology offers promise as a way to give supervisors of elections another tool to store and track paper ballots, but they say the state’s rush to encourage counties to start using digital images of ballots for recounts is a mistake.

If the measure passes both chambers, they will urge Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto it.

“We are very concerned about this,’’ said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “We have huge elections security issues in our country and our state, and when you have only one machine authorized to do these automatic audits, you open yourselves up for problems.”

Currently, nine counties — Bay, Broward, Columbia, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Nassau, Putnam, and St. Lucie — are prepared to use the equipment for the 2020 election cycle, but the legislation allows every county to use it.

The ClearAudit digital imaging system was the only system approved to conduct automated audits for the 2016 and 2018 general election cycles, but the legislation would allow it to also handle recounts.

The House staff analysis of HB 1005 notes that “the bill may result in a positive fiscal impact to private sector companies that manufacture or sell automatic tabulating machines” and then notes “only one machine has been authorized to conduct independent automated audits in the state.”

Recounts in Florida, a state that is almost evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats and voters affiliated with no party, have become a regular feature of every statewide election in recent years.

In 2018, the results of the U.S. Senate race, the governor’s race and the race for agriculture commissioner were all delayed because the closeness of the vote led to a recount.

It was nothing short of chaotic. Machines and processes broke down; ballots were lost; deadlines were blown, President Trump tweeted allegations of fraud. And a federal judge declared Florida the “laughingstock of the world.”

State law requires that if the margin of victory in any race is one-half of 1% or less, each canvassing board must conduct a machine recount. Election officials run the paper ballots through the voting system’s automatic tabulating equipment to determine whether the returns correctly reflect the votes cast.

If the results indicate a margin of victory of one-quarter of 1% or less, a manual recount of the over votes and under votes must be conducted. The county canvassing board reviews disputed ballots, such as those with stray pen marks or oddly marked votes, to try to discern the voters’ intent.

The bill allows county canvassing boards and supervisors of elections to use automated tabulating equipment and the digital image of the ballots. The ClearAudit system takes a digital image of each ballot and that can then be used to expedite the recount.

Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, the House sponsor of the measure said the system is “another tool to ensure the integrity of our voting system.”

But elections advocates say the precedent is the problem.

“The proposal that the digital image generated by the software is trustworthy while the paper ‘may’ be consulted is ludicrous,’’ McClenaghan of Common Cause said.

Byrd said the bill gives supervisors of elections the option of purchasing the equipment and “specifically says that no one has to use the system until there are competing systems..’’

“No one’s being forced to use this,’’ he said.

He argues that “paper itself can be hacked by a pen” and it takes one stray mark to spoil a ballot but the digital image won’t replace the paper ballot.

“The paper is always the best evidence,’’ he said. “There’s no judge who is going to say, ‘OK, I’m gonna take the PDF image over the actual physical ballot’. That’s not going to happen. This is not a substitute.”

The idea is being pushed by Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley who has adopted the technology to streamline his voting tabulation system, Byrd said.

Earley invited a bipartisan group of legislators to see how the system operates and “everybody came away impressed,’’ Byrd said.

McClenaghan of Common Cause Florida says Earley’s use of the technology has been impressive. Every day, after early voting, he runs the paper ballots through equipment, stores the ballot images and keeps tracks which ballots were cast, she said. If he is required to conduct a manual recount, he will be able to conduct an audit quickly.

“Two days after the election, every ballot has an image,’’ she explained. “So when you’re looking at the recount process, he can pull up images and decide if someone circled the oval or did something else.”

But McClenaghan said not every supervisor would use the equipment this way and the state should not be authorizing the automation of ballots without a better system in place.

“It’s not ready for prime time, they haven’t thought it all the way through,’’ she said. “They’re just saying this will be faster and there is nothing in elections that is important to be faster.”

The bill was unanimously approved by the House and a companion measure is scheduled for a vote in the full Senate, where it is expected to pass.