Op-Ed

We still don’t know the full story about the ballots destroyed in Broward County | Opinion

A Broward County Elections staffer prepares to load a machine as they count ballots in the November 2018 recount.
A Broward County Elections staffer prepares to load a machine as they count ballots in the November 2018 recount. AP

I was a candidate for Congress in Florida’s 23rd District in 2016. After the election ended with a loss, I had questions about the process and the result. We were surprised and disappointed since the results departed significantly from the information provided to me by seasoned pollsters and political professionals who worked for me, including our final field numbers that were based on an enormous number of voter engagements.

I had concerns, as did others, and as a result, I asked to inspect the ballots cast. Election officials refused my several requests to see the ballots, and after months of delay, we filed a lawsuit under Florida’s public-records laws. Three months later, Broward County election officials simply destroyed all of the thousands of ballots cast in my race. The Circuit Court subsequently ruled in my favor and found that the ballot destruction violated state law, Florida administrative regulations and federal law.

The destruction of those ballots was a federal crime, and the destruction of public records during a public-records lawsuit is a crime under state law. Yet, not one state or federal law-enforcement agency has conducted any investigation into Broward’s illegal destruction of the ballots cast in my election.

Brenda Snipes, the Broward elections supervisor who ordered the ballot destruction, initially was removed from office for her incompetence and inability to conduct an election as required under Florida law — and our case was cited by then-Gov. Rick Scott in support of her removal. But we still have many questions — and no answers.

Now we have learned that two Florida county election offices apparently were hacked, but federal officials insist on making any information concerning the hack top secret. One important defense against a cyber-attack is paper ballots — so that an audit can take place to verify the results. Given the hacking incident and the surrounding secrecy, it is even more imperative that the paper ballots themselves are maintained according to state and federal law.

The public should be able to see the basis for the claim that hackings did not alter the results of any elections in Florida in 2016. At this point, it is unclear which law-enforcement agency is even making such a claim. There is no public information upon which this claim is based. And experts say that it is child’s play for more than one intelligence agency to hack into and rig the software source codes, then leave no trace after the damage is done.

Federal and state officials are now spending a lot of money in cyber-security grants to the software vendors that run the electronic machines. But such additional spending will not reduce the inherent vulnerability of our electronic election systems — from the voter registration rolls that enable targeted and mass electronic purging of voters, to the electronic scanners that count the ballots at the local voting precincts.

Ion Sancho, former Leon County elections supervisor, believes that cyberattacks are not our biggest problem. According to Sancho, Florida does not properly audit its vote-counting machines, but instead simply assumes the machines are accurate when counting or recounting votes. “If the software is tampered with, what do you think is going to happen if you rescan the ballots? You’ll get the same answer back,” Sancho said. “The presumption that the voting machine is already correct is a silly presumption to begin with. It guarantees you won’t find the problem, if there is one.”

Since Floridians votes statewide on paper ballots, Sancho says we can always verify the machine counts with a proper audit of the paper ballots. But that means enforcing laws that require ballots be retained and made available for inspection. It is time for state and federal law enforcement agencies to do their jobs and investigate Broward County’s illegal destruction of all paper ballots cast in our 2016 primary.

The right to vote is fundamental; so is ensuring the integrity of the vote count. Law enforcement needs to get to work.

Tim Canova is a professor of law and public finance at the Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law in Davie/Fort Lauderdale. He is president of Progress for All, a community action group based in Hollywood, Florida.

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