Editorial: Action, not rhetoric, needed to fight voter fraud

Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered a security review of voting systems. But the state fails to take basic steps to protect the integrity of elections.
An unidentified voter makes her way into a polling place located at the Bayanihan Arts and Events Center to vote in the Presidential Preference Primary in 2016 in Tampa.  CHRIS URSO/TIMES STAFF
An unidentified voter makes her way into a polling place located at the Bayanihan Arts and Events Center to vote in the Presidential Preference Primary in 2016 in Tampa. CHRIS URSO/TIMES STAFF
Published May 26

It would seem to go without saying, but Gov. Ron DeSantis said it anyway last week. He directed the state’s top elections official to review the security of the state’s voting systems in advance of the 2020 election and to pay particular attention to cyber security. That’s great, but so far the governor’s rhetoric does not match the actions of his administration or the Legislature.

For example, state lawmakers finally voted last year to permit Florida to join more than two dozen other states in a nonprofit, nonpartisan consortium that shares voter registration information. That is an effective way to scrub voter rolls and reduce or eliminate duplicate registrations. The group, the Electronic Registration Information Center, also creates lists of eligible voters who are not registered by comparing voter rolls with lists of drivers’ licenses. That could make it easier to get more adults registered to vote.

Yet more than a year later, Florida has still not joined the consortium. Former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration did not do it, and the DeSantis administration is dragging its feet. Maria Matthews, the director of the state’s Division of Elections, told county supervisors of elections last week that “there’s a lot of moving parts and pieces.’’ She even characterized joining the consortium as embracing “a carrot and stick’’ approach, because one of the requirements to membership is educating residents about how to register to vote. How inconvenient.

To their credit, the supervisors of elections did not react well to Matthews’ remarks. Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark has been pushing for years for the state to join the consortium as a way to reduce possible voter fraud. She calls it “very frustrating to us to not have access to that tool. I’m really sorry to see the state take a pass on this year after year.’’

Given Matthews’ comments, it’s reasonable to question whether the governor and the Legislature are all that interested in having as many Floridians vote as possible. The governor intends to sign into law the legislation that would significantly undercut the intent of Amendment 4, which is aimed at enabling more than 1 million felons to automatically regain their voting rights after completing their sentences. So while Georgia announced last week it has joined the consortium, maybe it isn’t that surprising Florida is still stalling.

Here’s another reason to question the state’s commitment to fighting voter fraud. Last year, the Scott administration asked the Legislature for $488,000 to create a full-time elections cyber security team with five people. Lawmakers refused. This year, new Secretary of State Laurel Lee asked the Legislature for $1.5 million to keep five cyber security contractors who were hired last year to help local supervisors of elections. Lawmakers refused. So the state is down to two “cyber navigators’’ who are working with local elections officials. That’s not nearly enough fire power in a state with 67 counties and two unnamed counties where local voter data bases were invaded by Russian hackers before the 2016 election.

To be fair, DeSantis points out that more than $14.5 million in federal money was distributed to counties last year for election security. Another $1.9 million in state funding has been sent for monitoring sensors that can detect cyber threats and alert officials when data may be at risk.

It’s great that the governor wants a review of elections security now that he has been briefed by federal officials about the counties that experienced intrusions into voter data bases by the Russians in 2016. It would be better if his administration affirmed its commitment to fight fraud by joining the national consortium to share voter information -- and if the Legislature backed up the rhetoric with real money to improve the defense against cyber attacks.