Florida County Approves $1.7M in Election System Upgrades

Orange County officials approved the funds, citing a need to upgrade the nearly 30-year-old voter registration database. All but three of the 67 counties use a software system designed to interface with the state voter-registration system.

by Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel / March 28, 2019

(TNS) — Preparing for the 2020 elections, when Florida is sure to be a pivotal state again in the race for president, Orange County commissioners unanimously granted Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles’ appeal for $1.7 million to upgrade voting equipment now.

Cowles hopes to roll out new machines in time for Florida’s presidential preference primary on March 17, 2020, when Democrats and Republicans will help choose their parties’ White House nominee.

He said his office decided not to put off the request until the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, because of “lessons learned” during the 2018 general election, which featured for the first time ever three statewide recounts.

The recounts included high-profile races for U.S. Senate and governor.

Florida's recount process, tossed into the national spotlight during the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and eventual winner George W. Bush, was again marred last year by charges of incompetence, antiquated technology and a faulty ballot design.

Cowles, first elected in 1996, wants to upgrade the county’s voter-registration database system, which is nearly three decades old.

Developed in-house in 1991, the county’s system has been expanded, reprogrammed and improved by the elections office’s information-technology experts several times and soon would be an outlier in the state.

Of Florida’s 67 counties, all but three now use a software system provided by VR Systems, which was designed to interface with the Florida voter-registration system based in Tallahassee.

Cowles said two other counties, Palm Beach and Sarasota, are expected to convert to the system before year’s end.

“We do not want to be that one county in the state not on this system,” he said.

Cowles said the new software is more of an administration tweak that won’t affect voters directly.

“Voters will not see a difference in the registration process,” he said.

The software conversion is expected to take about nine months and cost $880,000.

The county also will pay an annual licensing fee of $185,000.

As the population increases, Orange County’s voter rolls continue to surge — from 604,000 in 2008 to 822,000 as of Tuesday, a 36-percent increase in the past decade.

But the way people vote is slowly changing. Orange County voters also are increasingly casting ballots by mail.

In 2008, about 118,000 voters in Orange cast voted “absentee” or by mail. Cowles estimates about 300,000 voters — one in three — will opt to mail in a ballot in 2020.

Figuring in ballots cast during the county’s early-voting period, about half the votes counted in Orange County elections are cast before the polls open on Election Day.

Cowles’ request also sought $724,000 for additional voting equipment to sort and tabulate votes.

He wants three more high-speed counters and 60 more tabulators, which are used on Election Day and at early-voting sites.

“When you see my budget proposal for the next fiscal year, we’re going to be increasing the number of early voting sites because that’s how voters want to vote,” he said.

Cowles said the county must fork out another $104,000 to replace 3G modems with 4G versions as Verizon is retiring the third generation of wireless mobile telecommunications technology with the fourth generation of broadband cellular technology.

The modems transmit results from polling places on election night to election headquarters.

Cowles said the upgraded equipment can be installed in late summer or early fall when the devices ordinarily would be serviced under an existing maintenance contract.

He said he doesn’t envision legislators allowing electronic voting “any time soon.”

“I believe the elections of 2018 — and the three recounts that we went through — validates the fact that Florida wants to remain a paper-based state so we can use the paper [ballots] to recreate any election at any time,” he said.

Since 1936, Floridians' pick for president has lined up with the overall winner in 18 out of 20 elections.

That track record, the state's growing diversity and its 29 electoral votes make the Sunshine State a perpetual target of campaigns.

The last time Florida's pick for president didn't win was 1992, when Florida voters picked incumbent George H.W. Bush over winner Bill Clinton.

The only other difference in the past 80 years was when voters picked Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in 1960.

©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.