Ever since the 2000 presidential election, a small group of elections offices in South Florida have had a bad rep. This status was solidified in the fallout of the Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections. As the rest of the country moved on to the next election cycle, heavily Democratic-leaning Palm Beach and Broward counties remained unable to finish their election recounts, drawing protests and angry tweets from President Trump.
But now the new top elections officials in both counties say they are confident that next month’s presidential primary will showcase that they have turned their ships around.
“We live with our reputation, and it’s not very good,” says Peter Antonacci, the new Broward elections supervisor.
Antonacci was appointed after then-Gov. Rick Scott suspended longtime Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes for “misfeasance, incompetence and neglect of duty.”
“The only way to improve reputation is to improve performance,” Antonacci said. “We’ve had two elections in 2019 in Broward County, they went off without a hitch. They were small elections, but it was good practice.”
Since taking over the office, Antonacci says he has been implementing reforms across the board, from paying poll workers the same day they perform their duties, to changing the way mail-in-ballots are counted.
Mail-in ballots have been a recurring issue in Broward, and were blamed for some of the lag in 2018.
“For vote-by-mail in a big county particularly, you have to be on your vote-by-mail ballots every day. And whatever the post office delivers to you, you’ve gotta complete that day. And if you don’t, you’re going to wind up on Election Day way behind the curve,” Antonacci said. “What happened in 2018 is that we were not taking care of all the business we were delivered by the post office everyday, and by Election Day we were thousands of ballots behind. It was a lengthy ballot, multiple pages. And on Election Day we got 16,000 ballots that were delivered. And the system simply melted.”
The office has heavily invested in cybersecurity technology, says Antonacci, citing widespread fears that a foreign power could perhaps gain access to the voting rolls and change the outcome of an election.
“We have spent an enormous amount of money purchasing and deploying the most up-to-date defensive mechanisms that we can buy. And that is in coordination with national law enforcement, state law enforcement, state elections officials, etc.,” Antonacci said.
All 67 counties in Florida are now participating in what is called the “Albert” system, in coordination with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The system is designed to constantly monitor for attempts to hack into supervisors of elections offices.
Cybersecurity is among the top concerns in Palm Beach County. Just last week, Elections Supervisor Wendy Sartory Link told the Palm Beach Post that her office was hacked in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, though that hack was never disclosed to federal authorities.
The alleged hack happened before Sartory Link was in office, under her predecessor Susan Bucher. (Bucher has denied that any hack happened.) Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Bucher over her office’s handling of 2018 election recounts, and appointed Sartory Link to the office.
“If somebody hacked into the Pentagon, I can’t tell you that they’re not gonna hack into some place in Florida — it could be Palm Beach County,” Sartory Link told WLRN in an interview that took place before she disclosed that the office had been hacked in 2016.
Asked if her office has done everything it can do to protect against potential future hacks, she continued: “We will have. We’re in that process. And I don’t mean to be coy with that answer but I can tell you we have some things in place that are lined up to be completed before the March election.”
Sartory Link’s office has purchased new vote counting machines — the core reason Palm Beach County’s 2018 recount had so many issues. And her office has set up a new alert system that will flag anyone who attempts to vote twice in the same election.
“Within about 15 seconds of your voting, our entire system knows that you have voted,” she said. “If you show up at a voting location and you try to go to another voting location it will say, 'Sorry, you already voted,' even if it was 10 minutes ago.”
By the time of the November election, a separate system will be in place that will check for anyone registered to vote in more than one state.
In addition to the presidential primary on March 17, Palm Beach County will conduct 20 municipal elections that day, including in West Palm Beach, Boca Raton and Lake Worth Beach. That makes it, by far, the busiest Election Day since Sartory Link came into office.
The new elections supervisor says she is confident all the things her office has done will be enough to restore the reputation of voting in Palm Beach County.
“The people who work here understand how important our jobs are. We really do have to secure democracy,” Sartory Link said. “If people lose faith in our voting system, that really shakes the whole foundation that our country was built on.”