The Press Club of Southwest Florida held its first virtual educational meeting via Zoom on June 4. Presenters included Trish Robertson, Public Relations Officer, Collier County Elections Office; Vicki Collins, Public Information Officer/Communications Director for Lee County Elections Office; and Gaby Aguirre, Communication Specialist, Lee County Elections Office.
Our facilitator was David Silverberg, Vice President – Programs. Here are links to pre-recorded interviews David conducted with our speakers. His interview with Vicki and Gaby can be found here; view his interview with Trish here.
During our Zoom meeting, our presenters provided valuable information that demystified how we vote and reassured the press club that voting by mail is safe and secure. Here are highlights of their comments to the press club.
Lee County Overview:
Officials encourage voters to request mail-in ballots. Mail-in voting allows for a safer and healthier environment for poll workers and voters.
Significant efforts are undertaken during each election cycle to help the public understand the process, especially the safe and secure mail-in methods. Officials have developed a partnership with media to provide ongoing messaging that they are the trusted source for accurate information about voting. Their goals are to help voters understand all of the efforts undertaken to maintain a credible, accurate, safe voting system and to highlight that the process is highly transparent—there is nothing to hide.
Collier County Overview:
Officials are using proactive education, including media/press releases, advertising and social media, to demystify the voting process and address the many falsehoods.
Mail-in voting is not a new concept. In fact, it has been in place for decades. In Collier, it is the preferred method of voting. Florida has critical controls in place to eliminate concerns about voter fraud. This method is a good insurance policy for pandemics, hurricanes and other events and problems that can impact in-person voting.
What Are the Security and Anti-Fraud Measures Since Last Election?
Physical security and network security are high priorities. In the last few years, there has been an emphasis on cyber security – all 67 counties in Florida invested in an advanced security monitoring system.
Locally, each county has hired a security network analyst for prevention and mitigation. In addition, staff members and volunteers receive continuous training.
They also have partnered with Homeland Security, the FBI and other federal and state key agencies to address all possible vulnerabilities, including possible hacking. Added protections are now in place. A robust chain of command exists that is strengthened and improved every year.
There are multiple layers of security in place, including traditional paper audit trails and security cameras—everywhere! The tabulation center is online. The building that houses the voting offices provides physical security for storage and tabulation of all ballots.
Pfishing attempts have taken place in the past, but the system was not “hacked.” The system was not compromised.
What Are the Key Dates in the Election Cycle?
If you wish to vote, you must register. All registered voters are eligible to request a Vote-by-Mail ballot. Approximately 30 days before the election, ballots are mailed to those making the request.
Ballots are legal documents, and by signing the envelope, you make an oath certifying that you are who you say you are. The signatures are matched to the signatures on record. It is recommended that signatures on file be updated from time to time, especially for individuals who are aging and may have changes in dexterity.
If a signature does not match, election staff are required by law to contact the voter right up to election day. Because this piece is so critical to mail-in ballots, based on a 2018 law, additional training is provided for signature verification.
If you request a duplicate ballot because yours was lost or misplaced, there are checks and balances in place so that only one ballot can be counted.
How Are Ballots Actually Stored, Counted and Verified?
Mail ballots are received and accepted into the office, and then about three weeks (up to 22 days) before the election, they are extracted, sorted and tabulated.
Tabulators utilize a logic and accuracy verification system.
Every valid ballot is counted: vote by mail, early voting and day-of voting.
As mentioned above, mail ballots require a signature verification.
Ballots are stored in highly secure areas (ballot cages), under lock and key. A very small number of employees have key card access, and security cameras and other monitoring systems are in place.
How Do You Ensure Safety and Security While Using Outside Vendors?
Because of the large volume of ballots, outside vendors are utilized to print and distribute ballots. In Lee County, for example, there are now approximately one-half million voters.
Ballots must meet all specs and are specially coded. Logic and accuracy testing is rigorous.
The vendors provide physical proofs. Lee and Collier staff members agree that they must be extremely careful in proofing the ballots and envelopes.
Can I Track My Ballot?
What Are Some of the Voting Issues and Concerns in our State? What Happened in Broward/Palm Beach County?
Trish explained that some counties may have been working with old and outdated election equipment. Thanks to a strong relationship with Collier County officials, the Collier County Elections Office has an appropriate budget to purchase new equipment to maintain quality standards.
Are Recounts a Good or Bad Thing?
Based on Florida State laws, recounts are required when election results are within a particular margin range. Timeframes to complete recounts are very tight, and according to Vicki, they are very demanding and require a great deal of hard work.
How Can Hurricanes Impact the Election Process?
As you would guess, Florida has a history of hurricanes impacting elections. With partnerships with FP&L, local first-responder departments, and other emergency services, both Lee and Collier counties have robust emergency plans in place. Guidance is provided by the Governor of Florida. In recent years, the Governor has issued an executive order to allow for voting extensions.
Following Hurricane Irma, voting locations had to be moved when significant damage and disruption made it difficult for the public to cast their votes. Remember that mail ballots can go with you in an evacuation—and let’s hope we won’t need to evacuate in 2020.