Election watchers are trying to avoid a repeat of 2016—when Russian hackers tried to gain access to networks across the county. They didn’t get in—but it’s a cloud that continues to hover over the mid-term cycle.
Congress created a $380 million grant program this Spring to help shore up election technology and security, and President Donald Trump signed off on it in March as part of a federal spending bill. The federal Election Assistance Commission distributed the money to states, with Florida getting $19 million. Allowable costs include post-election audits, physical security, "like roll-up doors, enhanced security features like a fire-proof door, cameras and video systems," described state elections division director Maria Matthews.
The funding can also be used to cover cyber security. Matthews and Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner appeared before the Florida Legislative Budget Commission to get the okay to begin dispersing the funding to local supervisors of elections. Those officials had had until July 18th to submit proposals for how they would spend the dollars. Detzner says each county will get $50,000 with the rest to be distributed based on voting-age populations. The money comes in the wake of attempts by Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election.
“This was really earmarked more for combating the potential outside threats from nation-states and hardening our security environment as election officials," said Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley. It’s along the lines of the election industry becoming critical infrastructure. We take that very seriously. The threats are real.”
Last June it was reported systems in Florida along with several other states were targeted for hacks and leaked documents revealed a Tallahassee-based election firm was targeted as part of Russia’s efforts to influence the presidential campaign. Hackers used a fake, malicious email from the company to try and gain access to more than 100 local government offices.
During the committee hearing, Sen.Oscar Braynon, D-Miami, inquired whether the money would have an effect on preventing future hacks:
"Is there any chance these funds-how they would have or be put into use to stop what came out a little while ago that there were over 100 attempts to infiltrate or local election systems here in Florida?" He asked.
Detzner reinterated that no Florida election information was compromised.
Election supervisors are facing a tight spending deadline. They’ve got until November to use the money, or lose the money—it would revert to state coffers. Leon’s Early says he’s got uses for the money, but, “if I have to use all of it or I’ll never see it again…Miami-Dade has $1.6 million—it’s difficult to find wise uses for all of that to be rolled out in time for election …it’s like changing horses in the middle of the race.”
But Detzner says there’s a reason for the quick turnaround. Monies that end up going back into state coffers can go toward future tech upgrades. He says technology is constantly changing, and systems have to be nimble enough to adapt.
“These elections are marathons, not sprints," he said. "There will be other elections, and we want to make sure money is available to supervisors in the future and this isn’t a one-time shot, that we can have longevity and learn from our best practices this year.”
Floridians head to the polls for the primary on August 28th. The General Election is November. The League of Women Voters of Florida wants the spending deadline extended through December.