Less than three months from the primary election, it is entirely unclear whether Florida is adequately prepared to fend off any cyber attacks that could compromise the results. Sen. Marco Rubio has his doubts, the state has yet to receive millions in federal dollars to improve security and county elections supervisors acknowledge they are scared. With the federal investigation continuing into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Gov. Rick Scott and state officials should accelerate efforts this summer to ensure voters can have confidence in the integrity of this year's election.
The state's track record so far is not encouraging. The Legislature failed to approve money for the five cyber security experts Scott wanted to hire even though the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported last year that five Florida counties were targeted in unsuccessful Russian attacks in 2016. Scott later directed the state's Division of Elections to hire the experts anyway, although they are not yet on board. Counties are still buying and installing sensors that can monitor and detect — but not stop — electronic attacks with $1.9 million in federal money sent by the state. And just last week, Scott overruled the state's top elections official and declared the state will belatedly seek another $19 million in federal money to help counties further secure election systems. As of Wednesday morning, the application for the money still had not been submitted.
And remember, early voting for the Aug. 28 primary begins in less than two months.
It's inexplicable why Florida did not seek the additional federal money as soon as President Donald Trump signed a spending bill into law in March that provided $380 million to the states to harden their election systems. At least 16 states already have applied for the money, but Secretary of State Ken Detzner told county election supervisors last week that none of that money would be available to them before the November election. That infuriated election supervisors who spent last week talking about cyber security and getting advice from Department of Homeland Security officials. Within hours of the Times/Herald reporting Detzner's remarks, Scott overruled him and ordered his chief elections official to seek the federal money.
Florida's lack of urgency has not gone unnoticed in Washington. Rubio warned last month the state's election system is vulnerable and suggested elections officials are "overconfident,'' which understandably upset county elections officials who have neither the financial nor the human resources to fight cyber attacks from Russia or anywhere else on their own. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is being challenged by Scott in November, was quick last week to capitalize on the state's failure to seek the federal money and more appropriately focus the spotlight on the governor.
The reality is that during Scott's eight years as governor the emphasis in Tallahassee has been on making it harder to vote rather than on improving access and election security. The state ordered Pinellas County in 2013 to stop using remote sites to make it easier for voters to submit mail ballots but backed down after Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark defied the order. Scott refused to extend the voter registration deadline in 2016 after ordering hurricane evacuations, but the courts ordered a six-day extension. The state is defending a lawsuit over its refusal to allow the student union at the University of Florida to be an early voting site. And of course, Scott and the Cabinet are appealing a federal court ruling that ordered the state to create a new, streamlined process for restoring felons' voting rights.
There are a couple of bright spots. After years of ignoring the issue, the Legislature this spring finally allowed the state to join a nonprofit consortium of 20 states that share voter information to combat fraud and weed out voters registered in more than one state. And last October, Florida became the 35th state to offer online voter registration (RegistertoVoteFlorida.gov), where Floridians also can check if they already are registered to vote.
Overall, this still has been a dismal eight years for a state that should be making it easier to vote instead of harder. Let's hope that the late push to ensure the integrity of this year's election goes smoother — and that the next governor and Cabinet are more committed to removing roadblocks to voting instead of erecting them.