Saving All Ballot Images Would Increase Election Security

Dennis Maley
If we were playing Say the First Thing that Comes to Mind and I were to say the words 2000 presidential election, most Americans would probably say, Florida, and say it with a frown on their face and frustration in their voice. Twenty years later, we still do not seem to have adequately learned from that embarrassing failure.   

Over the past decade, Florida counties have transitioned from older optical scan technology that counted paper ballots to newer digital systems that function by capturing an electronic image of each vote on each ballot. As ballots are fed through the digital scanners, the machines automatically create an electronic image of each ballot which is what is actually counted, rather than the ballot itself. 

However, while Manatee and Sarasota are among the Florida counties that save all of the scanned ballot images, more than half of the counties are not doing so. At least 36 Florida Supervisors of Elections are refusing to save all machine ballot images, even though both federal and state statutes require that all ballot materials be preserved for the 22 months following an election. 

A number of candidates and electors have joined the Florida Democratic Party in filing suit against eight SOEs, seeking an injunction that would require them to do so for the upcoming August primary and November general election. They argue that the images are part of the chain of custody and therefore must be maintained under the Public Records Act, chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes.

Florida does not require a voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) or verified paper record (VPR) to allow voters to verify that their vote was cast correctly, or to detect possible election fraud or malfunction, or as a means to audit the stored electronic results. A recount is called only after all of the unofficial results are in (no later than noon on the fourth day after the election), and those results show a difference of less than 0.5 percent. If the result is within 0.25 percent, the Florida Secretary of State will call for a manual recount. However, that consists only of the overvotes and undervotes cast in the race, and only then if their number has the potential to change the result.

Laurie Woodward Garcia of Broward for Progress, who is petitioning the Secretary of State to require ballot images be stored, put it this way:

"Let's say a high school had an election for class president and they used paper ballots," said Woodward Garcia. "The principal scans the ballots and declares a winner in a very close race. Afterward, students want to see all the ballots and the photos of the scans that were used to count the ballots, but the principal denies both. He says they can 'audit' some of the ballots but they can't look at any of the photo scans. Would you expect the students to stand for this? Of course not, and neither should Floridians."

Clear Ballot is a secondary system that rescans all the ballots cast in a county and creates ballot images that may be used in audits in 2020 and recounts starting in 2021. But Woodward Garcia says that while it is a useful tool, it does not replace the need to save the original ballot images. She cites the November 2018 General Election when Broward County had planned to use the Clear Ballot re-scan in place of the state-required post-election audit but ran out of time before official results were due. Not all counties have purchased the Clear Ballot system and, even if a county purchases it, they are not required to use it.

The Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections counters that because the paper ballot itself has to be kept, saving an image of the digital scan would be redundant. In an email to SOEs, the association’s legal counsel conceded that if the image is saved, it must be maintained as a public record, noting that because it is not automatically saved, it is not a public record unless the SOE decides to save it. 

Election Systems & Software (ES&S), the company that manufactures voting machines used in our state, notes that there are three options with their software: save all images, save just images of ballots containing a write-in vote, or save none. So the legal argument to be had is whether or not the device counting the image rather than the ballot inherently makes that image a public record that state statute then requires to be maintained, or whether actively saving the otherwise temporary image triggers the requirement.

The better question may be why wouldn’t we want to ensure the credibility of an election by providing a way in which the results shown on the ballot images can be compared to the official results and also checked against the paper ballots. The idea that in a very closely contested and perhaps controversial election, counties, especially large ones, would ever be able to marshal the resources to complete a manual recount of all ballots and report official results by the deadline is obviously not realistic. And simply refeeding the ballots through the same scanners or auditing a small portion under/overvotes does not provide the same checks against scan errors, other glitches, or outright fraud. If the only reason to not save all scanned ballot images is to avoid creating another public record that must be maintained, that doesn’t seem like a good reason at all.

November’s presidential election is likely to be very close, and the results here in Florida may once again play a pivotal role. COVID-19 all but guarantees that there will be many more vote-by-mail ballots, the counting of which will almost surely delay the reporting of eagerly awaited results. Confidence in our ability to conduct an accurate and timely election while fending off efforts of fraud is not high among voters, especially given the seeds of doubt that have been sown in politicizing the issue. 

Saving digital images of all ballots cast is one way to bolster confidence in the system while giving us the ability to enact more accurate means to inspect close or otherwise controversial results. This seems like a no-brainer and if it cannot be corrected via the judicial pathway, lawmakers should provide a legislative solution.

Dennis Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University, where he earned a degree in Government. He later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. Dennis's latest novel, Sacred Hearts, is available here.


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Reader Comments
John Severini
AUG 14, 2020  •  Great article Dennis, thanks for shining a light on another flaw in our election systems. Of course digital images should be saved and made public, what are they hiding ? I'd like to point out it was Ralph Nader that had the most effect on the outcome of the 2000 election. In the 2000 presidential election in Florida, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes. Nader received 97,421 votes in Florida. Most political scientist agree Nader voters would have picked Al Gore as their 2nd choice. A system of voting known as Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) would have allowed Nader voters to express their 2nd and 3rd choice. This voting reform is catching on around the country (25 cities use it now and 4 states are working on adoption) RCV is huge an improvement on our current pick one system. Learn more at rankmyvoteflorida.org or fairvote.org
Barbara Elliott, Stone Soup Manatee
AUG 09, 2020  •  I don't plan to mail my ballot. I plan to place it in the ballot box before the deadline, August 18, outside the election office. First I will take a pic of myself depositing my ballot into the box. A dated and timed pic. Then I will track it on the Manatee SOE website to see when, (if) it is received, then counted. That will be my scanned proof my vote counted. That way I don't have to trust the US mail or the powers that be. How about you? Make sure your vote counts and if it doesn't, RAISE HELL! Bush beat Gote by about 600 votes. Are we going to be Floridaduh again in 2020? Remember Hitler gained control of the Nazi party by ONE vote. Your vote HAS to count


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