Experts give assurances as election looms

Florida Coronavirus News

A bowl of stickers for those taking advantage of early voting, Sunday, March 15, 2020, in Steubenville, Ohio. Elections officials in the four states, Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, holding presidential primaries next week say they have no plans to postpone voting amid widespread disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, they are taking extraordinary steps to ensure that voters can cast ballots and polling places are clean. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) — Elections experts are spreading the word that voting systems are secure and prepared for what is expected to be record turnout in the hotly contested Nov. 3 presidential election, even as federal officials acknowledged that foreign disinformation campaigns aimed at sowing confusion and distrust have targeted voters in Florida and elsewhere.

Supervisors of elections, legal analysts, and voting-rights organizations are holding news conferences, urging journalists to assure voters that processes are in place for a smooth election, even if the results might not be known on Election Day.

“This will not be a repeat of 2000. Second, I don’t anticipate any serious problems this year in Florida, and probably in any states,” attorney Barry Richard told reporters during a Thursday morning video conference.

Richard was among the attorneys who represented George W. Bush in the legal battle over Florida’s presidential recount in 2000. Bush’s 537-vote win in Florida over Democrat Al Gore nailed down Bush’s victory in the race for the White House.

In the two decades since the 2000 recount, Florida scrapped punch-card ballots that resulted in controversial “hanging chads” that made the state an international laughingstock and initiated a number of other changes designed to reduce the risk of election disasters.

For example, the state moved to optical-scan paper ballots following the 2000 debacle, Richard and Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles told reporters on Thursday.

But with 29 prized electoral votes, battleground state Florida is the target of foreign and domestic groups seeking to inject disarray into the highly charged battle between President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. Both candidates consider Florida a critical element of a White House victory.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a record number of voters are choosing to cast ballots by mail or submit completed ballots at drop boxes. And hundreds of thousands of Floridians are showing up in person since early voting sites began opening Monday. In all, more than 4.2 million Floridians had already cast ballots Thursday morning, according to the state Division of Elections website.

With recent polls showing Trump and Biden deadlocked in Florida, the candidates and their surrogates are crisscrossing the state. Trump will hold rallies Friday in The Villages and Pensacola, which are GOP strongholds. Former President Barack Obama will campaign for Biden on Saturday in Miami.

The spotlight on Florida was heightened Wednesday, when federal officials accused Iran of sending threatening emails to voters and cautioned that Russia has collected voter information that could be used to interfere with the election.

Voters in Alachua, Brevard, and other counties received emails from sources identifying themselves as members of the “Proud Boys.” The emails warned that the Proud Boys had obtained personal information about the Floridians and threatened harm if they do not vote for Trump. Voters in at least one other state — Alaska — received similar messages.

The emails threatened, “vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.” The Proud Boys, a far-right white nationalist group that supports Trump, denied any association with the messages.

At a news conference Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said Iran and Russia want to “cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine your confidence in American democracy.”

“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” he said.

Information about Florida voter-registration applications — except for certain people, such as judges, whose information is exempt — is available to the public, Mark Ard, a spokesman for Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, said when asked about the spoofed messages.

The state’s voter-registration system has not been breached, Ard said in an email.

While Russia wasn’t behind the emails, the U.S. adversary has “obtained some voter information, just as they did in 2016,” Ratcliffe said Wednesday.

Russians hacked systems in two Florida counties prior to the 2016 election, but Gov. Ron DeSantis said last year he did not have permission to reveal the locations.

In the lead-up to the 2020 election, elections experts have repeatedly warned Americans to be on alert for disinformation and misinformation campaigns, such as one targeting Hispanic voters in South Florida.

The threatening emails targeting voters in Alachua County and elsewhere are “exactly the kind of thing that we can expect to see over the next 13 days,” David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told reporters Wednesday.

Disinformation is “designed to divide us, to delegitimize the process, to reduce our confidence in the ultimate election outcome,” Becker, a lawyer, said.

While voters can expect “to see a lot more of this” before the election, Becker underscored that the country’s voting systems are immune to tampering by fraudsters.

“I remain very confident that this is the most secure election we’ve ever had, which is not to say it’s as secure as it ever needs to be,” he said.

With the huge uptick in mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic, experts are also emphasizing that the results of the election might not be known for days.

Supervisors, whose first unofficial results aren’t due to state elections officials until noon Saturday after the election, are urging patience.

“Everything is unofficial after election night, until we get to that final certification on November 15. So, in that period of time, there are ballots that could change the results,” Cowles said Thursday.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, defeated her Republican opponent Matt Caldwell by 6,753 votes in 2018, following a manual recount. Caldwell appeared to be in the lead when polling places closed on Election Day, Fried noted.

“I was a product of that, where we still had a significant amount of votes that had to be counted in the tri-county (Southeast Florida) area. So, we didn’t know the election results until days afterward. Also, we have a lot of absentee ballots that come in from overseas. Those certainly made a huge difference in my race as well. So, everybody just be patient,” she told The News Service of Florida on Thursday.

The experts’ alerts come as Trump has waged a months-long crusade against mail-in voting, apparently targeting states that are providing mail-in ballots to all voters. Florida voters must request absentee ballots.

The Republican president also continues to incite his supporters by claiming that the election would be “rigged” if he loses and maligning the possibility of a delay in the final results.

“Even though Trump has done his best to convince people that the system does not have integrity, I think most Americans truly believe that it does. It will work itself out, and we will have a president when it is over,” said Richard, whose wife, Allison Tant, is a state House candidates and former chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party.

— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

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