After Florida was hacked in 2016 election, state got millions for election security. Here’s how it was spent

EDITOR’S NOTE: We are providing information about security across Florida’s election offices. Normally, this is the kind of exclusive reporting we would limit to subscribers only. We chose instead to make this story more broadly accessible because of the importance of its content. But quality, fact-checked reporting isn’t free. Collecting and verifying news is a costly and time-consuming endeavor and perhaps has never mattered more than it does now. Please show your support for quality reporting like this by subscribing.

After Florida election offices were hacked four years ago, unprecedented millions flowed to the states to shore up electoral systems against future attacks.

Florida officials pulled a shroud of secrecy over how that money was spent, forcing election supervisors to sign confidentiality agreements before they could get their money.

Six months ago, USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida reported in general terms that the money went to both cyber and physical security improvements.

Will your vote count? Florida’s secrecy about election security makes it nearly impossible to know

But now, public records obtained by USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida help pull back the veil and provide a more detailed look at how election supervisors in all 67 counties spent their share of the $14.6 million in federal grant allocations: 

  • The largest share — about $8 million — went to high-tech gadgetry to secure the voter database, upgrade outdated network systems and servers, and improve the security of the elections system.
  • The single largest chunk of those election security funds given to Florida — $3.6 million — was used to buy electronic poll books that help protect voter data and allow for quick verification of voter eligibility, which guards against people voting twice.
  • And $2.4 million went to beefing up the physical security of the ballots so they can’t be destroyed or stolen. One county bought bulletproof panels for its registration area, and seven counties bought “bollards,” the concrete pillars that prevent cars from crashing into building entrances. 

Has it worked? “Absolutely. So far it’s worked because nobody has been hacked,” said Mark Earley, Leon County’s supervisor of elections and vice president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association. “The proof is in the pudding.”

State and federal officials continue to say the 2016 hacks didn’t affect the actual votes cast or change the outcome of the election that year. The 2018 general election and the March 2020 presidential preferential primary also were unscathed by hacking or spear-phishing attempts.

With the COVID-19 pandemic driving people to shift their ballot experience to voting by mail, the state has received $20 million in new money from Congress to buy more scanners, hire more people and put in plexi-glass screens.

But hacking is an ever-present danger in the upcoming general election. A new Foreign Affairs report cited Wednesday by the Washington Post outlines how U.S. intelligence officials are mounting an offensive against potential foreign interference in what is being called one of the most significant presidential elections in U.S. history.

A Pew Research Center survey this month showed that 75% of Americans still believe Russia or other foreign governments are likely to interfere with the 2020 presidential election, and they have become less confident that the federal government is making serious efforts to protect U.S. elections from hacking.

Brad Ashwell, Florida state director for All Voting is Local, a voting rights advocacy organization, said the state should spend more of its own money to shore up its system.

“We can’t be complacent or overconfident,” Ashwell said.

Watchdog says: Florida’s lack of transparency about election security funds aided alleged coverup

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