Vot­ing chiefs call for money

Tampa Bay Times - - Local - BY STEVE BOUS­QUET Times/Her­ald Tallahassee Bureau

Coun­ties seek­ing to im­prove elec­tion se­cu­rity are await­ing fed­eral aid.

TALLAHASSEE — Faced with cy­ber­se­cu­rity threats to their vot­ing sys­tems, Florida elec­tion su­per­vi­sors say they want ac­cess to $19 mil­lion in fed­eral elec­tion se­cu­rity money Congress ap­proved for Florida nearly two months ago.

But the state doesn’t have the money partly be­cause it hasn’t sub­mit­ted the nec­es­sary pa­per­work and elec­tion of­fi­cials say they’re grow­ing im­pa­tient.

“We sure wish the money was avail­able. It’s frus­trat­ing,” said Su­per­vi­sor Mark Ear­ley in Tallahassee’s Leon County. “This is a big deal. There’s cer­tainly room for im­prove­ment, es­pe­cially in smaller coun­ties.”

Congress in­cluded $380 mil­lion in a 2018 bud­get bill and in March di­rected the U.S. Elec­tion As­sis­tance Com­mis­sion to dis­trib­ute the money to states. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump signed the bud­get bill on March 23.

“The EAC is re­leas­ing this money quickly so that the grants can have an im­me­di­ate im­pact,” the com­mis­sion said March 29. The money will help coun­ties “im­me­di­ately be­gin sys­tem up­grades.”

The feds say the money can be spent to re­place vot­ing equip­ment us­ing paper bal­lots (the sys­tem in Florida); cre­ate post-elec­tion au­dit sys­tems to en­sure ac­cu­rate re­sults; up­grade vot­ing sys­tems to pro­tect against “cy­ber vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties,” and train em­ploy­ees.

Mean­while, elec­tions of­fi­cials say they need to har­den sys­tems against threats, im­prove tech­no­log­i­cal se­cu­rity and bet­ter ed­u­cate vot­ers. All that costs money.

Plus, there’s an ur­gency to spend­ing that money sooner rather than later, like af­ter

Novem­ber.

U.S. Sen. Marco Ru­bio has said that Florida’s im­por­tance as the na­tion’s big­gest bat­tle­ground state makes it a prime target for at­tempted cy­ber­at­tacks like the kind that took place in 2016, when the FBI made an emer­gency call to elec­tion su­per­vi­sors to warn them of a “ma­li­cious act in a ju­ris­dic­tion in Florida.”

Elec­tions of­fi­cials are look­ing lo­cally for money now, pre­par­ing next year’s bud­gets to present to county com­mis­sion­ers.

This week, for in­stance, the elec­tion su­per­vi­sor in Gainesville, Kim Bar­ton, asked for more money for a truck, costs of print­ing an ex­cep­tion­ally long bal­lot, and for a new com­puter mon­i­tor­ing sen­sor known as AL­BERT.

But what about all that fed­eral money?

Paul Lux, su­per­vi­sor of elec­tions in Okaloosa County and the new pres­i­dent of the su­per­vi­sors’ statewide as­so­ci­a­tion, said: “We are still in an on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tion with the state over dis­burse­ment of these funds.”

Lux called Florida “one of the most proac­tive states” in tak­ing steps to fight in­tru­sions ei­ther by Rus­sians or by oth­ers de­ter­mined to dis­rupt the Florida vot­ing sys­tem.

Still, time is run­ning out. With a statewide pri­mary elec­tion a lit­tle more than three months away, the state has not re­layed too much in­for­ma­tion about the money, said Mi­ami-Dade Su­per­vi­sor of Elec­tions Christina White.

Florida’s share of the fed­eral pot is $19.2 mil­lion. By law, states must match 5 per­cent of the fed­eral to­tal, or about $959,000 in Florida.

“The Depart­ment of State is in the process of de­ter­min­ing the best use of this fund­ing to sup­port state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials in or­der to en­sure the con­tin­ued se­cu­rity and in­tegrity of Florida’s elec­tions,” said agency spokes­woman Sarah Revell.

Florida still must sub­mit ex­ten­sive pa­per­work to qual­ify for the money.

She said that when the money fi­nally does ar­rive, hope­fully by sum­mer, the state will have to ob­tain leg­isla­tive ap­proval to spend it.

Revell said the agency is fo­cused on dis­tribut­ing $1.9 mil­lion in fed­eral money to coun­ties to pay for net­work mon­i­tor­ing se­cu­rity solutions to check for sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity in vot­ing sys­tems.

Gov. Rick Scott asked the Leg­is­la­ture for five cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­perts in the state Divi­sion of Elec­tions, but law­mak­ers re­jected the re­quest.

In­stead, the state will hire five con­sul­tants with cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­per­tise. The ap­pli­ca­tion win­dow for those five po­si­tions closes to­day.

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