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  1. Florida Politics

Auditor general's report critical of how Florida handles voter information

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, middle, looks over an absentee ballot. Corley said he is troubled by the audit’s results.
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, middle, looks over an absentee ballot. Corley said he is troubled by the audit’s results.
Published Jul. 28, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — A highly critical state audit casts new doubt on whether Florida is ready to count votes in the 2016 presidential election and puts added pressure on Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official to show improvement.

The report by the state auditor general, an independent officer hired by the Legislature, criticizes the Department of State for its handling of the voter registration database in the nation's biggest electoral battleground, a state with nearly 12 million voters and a long history of controversy involving voting.

"It's troubling," Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said of the report, which was released late last week.

The Florida agency is run by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Scott appointee and a former lobbyist with no previous expertise in election systems. He tried unsuccessfully last spring to kill legislation creating an online voter registration system, and issued ominous warnings to lawmakers that "forces of evil" could harm the database.

The review of the state's management of the Florida Voter Registration System, or FVRS, which contains data on all voters, found that maintenance and performance controls need to be improved; disaster recovery plans have not been tested for four years; 14 workers had "inappropriate" access to the database; employees on the job for less than a year received no security training; and protection of confidential data on voters has to be more secure.

"Without adequate security controls," auditors wrote, "the risk is increased that the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of FVRS data … may be compromised."

Auditors said officials could not specifically tell them how many times the database shut down until they began asking questions. The answer they gave is eight times alone between last December and February 2015, including a failure that lasted three days.

A breakdown in mid February prevented a candidate from running for City Council in Delray Beach because the county elections office could not verify the signatures of voters on the candidate's forms, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported. Candidates in Florida can avoid paying qualifying fees by collecting signatures from voters.

The audit also faulted the agency for not having "records of scheduled and unscheduled maintenance that included complete information on all maintenance performed, problems and delays that were encountered during the maintenance process, the reasons for the problems and delays, the elapsed time for the resolution of the problems and delays, and routine analysis of maintenance records to identify recurring patterns or trends that may have required additional review and evaluation by management."

System breakdowns are a source of frustration to county election supervisors, who need ready access to the system to verify the status of voters.

In the past, supervisors clashed angrily with Detzner on his now-defunct efforts to purge the database of noncitizens and to block the use of remote dropoff points for mailed ballots in Pinellas County.

In response to the audit, Detzner did not take issue with its findings, but highlighted a number of steps to resolve all problems.

He noted that the agency is implementing a new hardware platform and that it "has implemented improved security controls."

As for the 14 employees whose access to the database the auditor general found "inappropriate and unnecessary," Detzner said everyone with access to the database has undergone criminal background checks and has a "confidential or managerial" job in the agency. A "major rewrite" of the FVRS code will include a new "inquiry-only" level of restricted access, he said.

For Detzner and his rapidly deteriorating relationship with county election supervisors, the audit could not have come at a worse time.

During the 2015 legislative session, supervisors were irate after Detzner repeatedly tried to defeat the online voter registration bill after he had earlier indicated his support.

The legislation had overwhelming bipartisan support, and Scott signed it into law on May 15, and, at Detzner's insistence, it will take effect in October 2017, after the next presidential election.

Senators were so angry that they refused to confirm Detzner, forcing Scott to reappoint him, and at their annual summer conference in Kissimmee in June, supervisors said Detzner owed them an apology.

If Detzner is not confirmed by the Senate in the 2016 session, he'll lose his job.

Two weeks ago, a group of supervisors, led by Corley of Pasco, their association's state president, held a face-to-face meeting with Detzner in an effort to improve communication.

Only later did the election officials learn about the audit, including Detzner's June 17 response.

"The fact that these issues are coming to light as we are about to enter a major election cycle is troubling," Corley wrote Detzner in a letter on Friday. "This lack of communications, left unchecked, will do nothing more than create an environment that obstructs the efficiency and innovation of our collaborative work."

Times/Herald staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.