TALLAHASSEE – With days to go, Florida has failed to spend more than $10 million designated for election security, COVID-19 protection at the polls and a surge in mailed ballots.
A large piece of that pie is $3.5 million that Secretary of State Laurel Lee requested from the Legislature earlier this year for the state’s 67 county supervisors of elections to shore up their systems.
The counties didn't ask for that money. And it remains unspent, sitting in a state account as "unbudgeted reserve."
Another chunk of pie left on the plate is $6 million in CARES Act funds that 19 counties decided not to take advantage of, which could be used to make polling places safer for voters and hire extra people to count mail-in ballots.
As the state's top election official, Lee insists Florida is ready.
“Florida is very well situated to proceed to our November election," Lee said.
Lee said the same thing about making sure the online voter registration system could handle the onslaught of new applicants. But it crashed on the last day people were allowed to apply to vote, forcing Lee to extend the deadline and sparking a legal challenge to extend it further.
How much the state spent to expand the load capacity for the online voting system remains a mystery as officials have not responded to repeated requests for that information.
"I'm incredibly frustrated to hear that those dollars are not being spent this close to the election," said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. "It's wild, especially when you request the money and it's not even being used in one of the biggest swing states."
Any extra money should be spent on election security to ensure that voters trust the system and that Florida has a quick, accurate delivery of the results to dispel any doubts the president or others may have about the outcome, Eskamani said.
"We need to make sure those results are clear cut," said Eskamani, who has been monitoring activities at the polls during early voting, recruiting poll workers and participating in campaign events for former Vice President Joe Biden.
Brad Ashwell, Florida director for the voter rights advocacy group All Voting is Local, was stunned to hear that election security money was available for county supervisors but not used.
“One thing is for sure, they can’t use not having resources as an excuse,” he said.
An analysis of publicly available budget records at the state-run Transparency Florida website maintained by the Department of Financial Services found Florida spent a little over $17 million of the $37 million approved for the Division of Elections' 2020-21 budget that began July 1.
But “just because the state hasn’t spent all the money doesn’t mean they don’t have everything in place to have a safe and secure election,” said Juan Gilbert, an expert in elections technology and chair of the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department at the University of Florida.
He speculated that some of that money is being held back for post-election problems that might come up, including investigations, audits and technical malfunctions.
“I suspect a great deal of funding will be needed after everyone votes to affirm the results," Gilbert said in an email. "There will likely be challenges to the results, so doing audits and cybersecurity/forensics post-votes will cost.”
Mark Ard, spokesman for the Secretary of State, confirmed that some of the money is being saved for future years.
But much is riding on Florida right now — the nation's largest swing state and a sordid history of hacking, recounts and legal disputes.
Lee has made that clear in public service announcements and on Twitter.
Election security is an essential priority for Florida’s state leadership. We’ve invested millions in safeguarding against cybersecurity attacks, working closely with U.S. cybersecurity experts and local Supervisors of Elections.
— Laurel M. Lee (@FLSecofState) October 12, 2020
She also acknowledged Florida’s importance this year and the difficulty of running elections in a brief filed by her lawyers in a recent Florida Supreme Court case seeking to prevent the Secretary of State from counting votes on Amendment 3, the open primaries constitutional amendment.
“This is not a typical General Election, during which Florida’s elections officials must ensure election integrity throughout the nation’s most significant swing state," Lee said. "In the best of times, it is difficult enough to manage over 14 million registered voters who are spread across two time zones and over 6,000 separate voting precincts. This year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic adds a layer of complexity that is aggravated by misinformation concerning the election.”
But when it came time to ask the Legislature for money to shore up voting systems against cyber hackers, Lee requested only 16% of the $21.5 million Congress gave Florida from the Help America Vote Act.
The Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, was created in Congress in 2002, after the presidential election fiasco of 2000, to make sweeping reforms to voter regulations and provide financial assistance to help state and local elections officials modernize their election systems.
When asked in September during a one-on-one interview with a USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida reporter why she didn't request the full amount for this election cycle, Lee said she didn't think the counties would be able to spend it fast enough.
Turns out, the counties didn't even request that money.
The HAVA aid was approved through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 20, 2019.
State elections officials had originally planned to spend $6.7 million of that new HAVA money during the last few months of the 2019-20 budget cycle that ended June 30. At that time, a one-sheet produced by the Division of Elections outlined a preliminary spending plan for the funds that included:
$1.975 million to create an online grant program for the county supervisors to use to improve their voting systems.
$800,000 to create a separate grant program for the supervisors to spend on voter access to make it easier to locate and get to polling places and to make poll books more available and voting systems more convenient.
$3 million "to bolster internal Department of State infrastructure and implement security enhancements to the Florida Voter Registration System.
$750,000 for a voter education campaign.
But over $3 million of it was swept back into the bank when Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all departments to cut their budgets after revenues fell sharply due to the economic disruption caused by the pandemic.
The Florida Legislature in March approved spending $4.5 million of the new HAVA money in the 2020-21 budget cycle that began July 1. That amount included the $3.5 million in HAVA funds for election security for the counties and $1 million to address any vulnerabilities in the state's election infrastructure.
“These funds were requested as part of the Department’s overall strategic plan for elections security,” said Ard, the spokesman for the Secretary of State.
He said those funds were also supposed to help pay for the Albert network monitoring system, created by the Center for Internet Security for detecting hacking and phishing attempts, and other election security-related expenses.
The balance of the $21.5 million HAVA grant — nearly $12 million — has been earmarked to be used over the next several years to bolster election security, he said.
“Not all priorities in our strategic plan are pre-election spending, and these funds may be in the form of an upfront spend — or advance payment — or a reimbursement requested by a Supervisor of Elections,” Ard said.
Ard also said the division made $2.4 million available to supervisors in preparation for the upcoming election. But a search of online records couldn't confirm that allocation in the present budget cycle.
The state also received $20.2 million in CARES Act money from Congress to help counties make polling places safe for voters in the pandemic and to accommodate the large increase in mailed-in ballots.
DeSantis waited two months to apply for Florida’s share, prompting a bipartisan letter from the Florida congressional delegation urging him to request the funds. The letter also highlighted the concerns of county elections supervisors over the significant challenges they faced during the March presidential preference primary due to COVID-19.
Supervisors also shared their concern about increased administrative costs to ensure voter and poll worker safety, the letter said.
Releasing the CARES money to the county supervisors was further delayed, without explanation, until weeks before the August primary.
The delay forced several supervisors to spend money earmarked for other expenses so they could buy COVID-19 supplies and prepare polling places according to social distancing guidelines.
Counties that didn't get to apply for the money up front could submit reimbursement requests.
Forty-eight counties applied for the grants and received a total of $14.3 million, according to the Department of State. But 19 counties did not avail themselves of the federal grant money, leaving $5.9 million on the table. Those counties include Charlotte, Duval, Palm Beach and Volusia.
Counties that haven't submitted requests yet can apply for reimbursement after the election, Ard said.
Voter registration system
One of the crucial areas where the state needed to invest was in its online voter registration system, which has crashed at least five times since it went live in 2017, including on the Oct. 5 deadline for registering to vote.
Yet only $775,000 of the $2.2 million budgeted for the statewide system was spent, according to the Transparency Florida website. And none of it appears to be used for expanding the load capacity to deal with the surge in voters applying online.
Ard said that amount reflects how much has been spent to date, calling it "an annual appropriation for the maintenance and operations of the Florida Voter Registration System."
During the interview last month, Lee said information technology workers were “working very hard to increase load capacity" and add additional servers to the online voter registration system to handle the anticipated surge of new applicants given the system’s propensity for crashing during peak loads in the past.
The online records don't specify if that money was spent to buy servers and other equipment to "expand the load capacity." Questions sent to the state were not answered.
Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, whose voters inhabit the famed I-4 corridor many pundits say is the road to the White House, said it was "disheartening that the system couldn't handle the capacity."
More unspent funds
Much of the Division of Election's $37 million budget is tapped for annual expenses, such as salaries and benefits, other personnel services, data processing and capital outlay, officials explained.
But USA TODAY Network - Florida identified about $14 million in unspent state and federal funds that could have been used on election security, the voter registration system, COVID-19 and guarding against election fraud.
In addition to the unspent HAVA and CARES Act money, these other categories show unspent funds:
A grant of $553,000 from the Center for Election and Innovation & Research for COVID-19 voter education that remained untouched. "We have contracted with numerous media outlets, including print media and radio, to place voter education and awareness ads related to voting options and public health measures that will be observed during voting," Ard said. "These ads are currently running and will pay invoices as each deliverable is met."
About $278,000 of the $525,000 appropriated for voting system assistance remains unspent. "This funding category is used to support Supervisors of Elections for replacement of outdated voting systems," Ard said.
Only $163,000 of the $1.28 million set aside to advertise proposed constitutional amendments was spent. Ard said the department is still paying off the remainder of advertisement costs to newspapers and other media across the state and the publication of constitutional amendment booklets.
Only 10% of the $446,000 set aside to prevent election fraud was used. That's an annual appropriation, Ard said, and the amount only reflects spending in the first quarter.
About $705,000 of the $1.5 million for special elections has been spent to date.
"It’s infuriating,” Ashwell said. “There are a ton of things supervisors could spend that money on."
They could buy more protective gear, hand sanitizers, masks and more drop boxes, he said, as well as hire more people to help count the additional mail-in ballots.
When the first state economic report showed a huge drop in tax revenue due to the pandemic, Democratic legislators wanted to hold a special session to discuss best ways to handle the downturn. Among the top items on their agenda was whether the state was spending enough on the upcoming election, Eskamani said.
That session never happened.
Because of COVID-19, polling places are at 50% of their building capacity to ensure social distancing, and that creates delays, Eskamani said.
"We could have spent the extra dollars to add more early voting sites," Eskamani said. "This shouldn't be happening under any circumstances."
County election officials nationwide are beholden to state officials because those federal dollars go through the state, said Larry Norden, director of the election reform program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University School of Law.
“County officials around the country are frustrated with states blocking the money they need,” Norden said.
Norden said those unused funds could help pay for lots of things to help people feel more secure when they go to the polls and more reassured that their vote will be recorded.
But the state also may have other uses in mind for those unspent funds.
“It may be there are things they want to do that are very expensive or long-term investments where it would not make sense to spend all that money at once or in a presidential year,” he said, giving as examples a major upgrade to the voter registration system or long-term election security hires.
“The devil is in the details, but it’s not crazy to want to invest in security over the long-haul,” Norden said. “The problem isn’t static, and it doesn’t go away after November.”
Mark Earley, supervisor of elections for Leon County and vice president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association, said he believes the state has been very helpful in providing resources to the local officials.
The counties received their first big round of election security money from Congress in 2018 — $14.6 million out of $19 million in HAVA funds. They had to sign confidentiality agreements to get the assistance, but the state, along with the Department of Homeland Security, helped identify deficiencies in their security and recommended what equipment to buy.
And in 2019, DeSantis returned $2.3 million of the unspent portion of that federal grant to the counties that hadn't spent all their share, and the Legislature kicked in an additional $2.8 million.
Lee also received $1.3 million to create a cybersecurity division in the Department of State and another $1 million to help the counties address issues as they cropped up.
She also created the Joint Election Security Initiative with all 67 counties, conducted tabletop exercises with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, and audited all 67 county election departments for vulnerabilities.
Lee also started a team of 10 IT experts, called cyber navigators, and hired nine additional IT people to assist smaller counties that had limited resources to shore up their defense systems against hackers.
Under the direction of DeSantis, the state also joined the Electronic Registration Information Center created by the Pew Centers to help identify out-of-date records by comparing data with other states. And she got all 67 counties hooked up to Albert.
The state is in a daily battle to instill voter confidence in the system, which is not only under physical attack from hackers but under a constant barrage of misinformation, Lee said.
"There is unprecedented cooperation between the state and local officials," she said. "If we succeed, it will be a success story of a magnitude not seen in state government."
When it comes to the security of the election, Cowles, Orange County's supervisor of elections, said, "I think all the supervisors are confident in the security, that we are positioning ourselves to have a good election."
Contact Jeff Schweers at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida failed to spend $10 million for election security, COVID protection