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Lawsuit seeks to force Florida counties to preserve digital ballot images

Supervisors of elections in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties among defendants; candidate for Pinellas County elections supervisor among plaintiffs.

A national nonprofit that advocates for election security has spearheaded a lawsuit against Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee and several county elections officials in an attempt to force them to preserve images of ballots that are made when paper ballots are scanned into voting machines.

The lawsuit, filed late Wednesday in Leon County Circuit Court, asks that the state issue instructions in time for the Aug. 18 primary election to require all county supervisors of elections to capture and preserve the images.

The group of plaintiffs includes the Florida Democratic Party, three state legislators who are up for re-election and Dan Helm, a Democrat running for Pinellas County supervisor of elections. Other voters are also plaintiffs, including Susan Pynchon, executive director of the Florida Fair Elections Coalition.

The suit names Lee, who oversees the state’e elections system, as a defendant, along with the state’s director of the division of elections and the supervisors of elections in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Broward, Orange, Lee, Duval, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

Attorney Chris Sautter, who is counsel to Audit USA, an election integrity advocacy group, said the lawsuit is about making elections publicly verifiable.

He said the images that are created when paper ballots are scanned in are what the machines actually use to count results and should be preserved for 22 months like other election materials. He said at least 27 Florida counties already choose to preserve the ballot images, and that all voting systems used in the state have the ability to preserve the images.

Florida counties, by law, already preserve the original paper ballots from each election.

Sautter said the digital images of the ballots can come in handy in situations where the paper ballot may be lost or come into question. He pointed to an instance in 2018 when Broward elections workers allegedly misfiled more than 2,000 paper ballots during a recount.

Helm, who is running against Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus in November, said the voting system used in Pinellas County can easily be set up to retain ballot images as the paper ballots are scanned.

“Storing ballots is required anyway. Why not store ballot images?” Helm said. “Why would you be against this?”

Related: Gov. Ron DeSantis appoints new Pinellas supervisor of elections

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office spokesman Dustin Chase declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office also said it couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

Preserving the ballot images would likely come with increased costs, noted Rep. Joseph Geller (D-Aventura), who is one of the plaintiffs on the current lawsuit. He said elections officials would likely need to buy more secure flash drives on which to store the data. He said each flash drive costs about $150, which could add up for counties with a lot of precincts. But he said the cost is small relative to the benefit of having the images.

Audit USA previously championed a similar lawsuit on this topic in 2018. That lawsuit, which was filed in federal court, was later dismissed.