A proposal in the legislature could change how recounts are conducted in Florida. The measure hinges on an auditing system that at least one local supervisor says is better at accessing digital copies of paper ballots than what's currently being used.
When elections are close, voter ballots are recounted. First by machine and if the results are still slim, by hand. It's a process Rep. Cord Byrd (R-Jacksonville Beach) remembers during the 2018 election. Byrd says he saw that election's recount in Duval County.
"We're in a room, and you've got dozens of people and tables spread around and tens of thousands of ballots out, and all it takes is one stray mark to spoil a paper ballot," Byrd says.
Now, Byrd is backing a bill that would allow election staff to use a system, currently used for auditing, for machine and manual recounts too. Right now, for manual recounts, election staff have to sort through ballots by hand. Byrd says the technology he's proposing is already approved by the state.
Currently, voting systems can make digital copies of paper ballots. Still, Leon County's Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley says those copies are hard to access and don't have any sorting capability. The auditing system Byrd wants the state to use keeps an inventory of all paper ballots and makes them easier to find so staff can cross-check them with digital copies. Earley says he's been working with the technology for 11 years.
"From my perspective, this is a highly secure system. It's completely offline. It is air-gapped. There's no connectivity to the internet at any time. It's certified to the tabulation part of this is certified to the same rigorous standards a voting system is," Earley says.
French Brown with advocacy group Verified Voting is concerned that election staff won't cross-check paper ballots with digital ones. Brown says checking the paper ballots should be a requirement in the bill.
"Florida should stand strong behind its decision to trust in the paper and at least have some level of check when you're going to use these digital technologies for a recount," Brown says.
Brown wants election staff to take a sample size of paper ballots and verify the digital ones match up. Byrd says he's planning on changing his bill to include that requirement. If signed into law, the bill would go into effect July 1. But Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections' David Ramba says he doesn't expect counties to use the auditing machines in the November election.
"This is just the start of the process. You still have to go through the rules and the certification. Even after that's done the implementation and the rollout—most supervisor of elections would not dare try to do that during an election cycle," Ramba says.
Ramba says digital copies could serve as a more easily accessible backup if the original paper ones have been lost or destroyed. They could also be blown up on a screen to make them easier to see. One concern brought up by lawmakers is the cost of the auditing technology and whether counties would be able to pay for it. Currently, nine counties use the system.