When Vicky Oakes first began working elections in 1992, “hanging chads” were a cause of concern for voters.
Now, it’s cyber attacks and voter fraud that has some citizens losing confidence in the election process.
Oakes, supervisor of elections for St. Johns County since 2011, will be hosting a workshop on the topic tonight at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at 2487 Route A1A South.
Oakes said she regularly schedules talks across the county to educate the voting public and clear up common misconceptions about the process.
Of the potential for hacking, Oakes said, “What they don’t realize is that the county’s voting system is not connected to the internet; it is a closed system.”
The county also maintains a single server at its headquarters, which also reduces the chances of a breach.
That level of security is going to increase with the addition of a system that monitors that on-site network 24/7. The new system, which cost about $15,000, should be installed in the next few weeks. With an eye toward cybersecurity, in 2017 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security designated election systems (storage facilities, polling places and vote tabulation locations), as critical infrastructure, and as such, has made federal grants available for upgrades in local jurisdictions.
Reports of irregularities, such as malfunctioning voting machines, in the 2016 presidential election, caused some to question the integrity of the election. The federal investigation into Russian interference in that election hasn’t helped inspire confidence, either.
A recent Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans were very or somewhat concerned about the security of the electoral system.
But unlike some states where electronic voting machines or the ones with the old mechanical levers, Florida uses paper ballots that are then fed into a digital scanner. Having paper ballots and using them in post-election audits is seen as a deterrent to would-be hackers.
Patricia Gill, chair of the St. Johns County League of Women Voters, said that she hears voters in other states or districts of Florida with concerns about the voting process, “I tell them, not in mine. … It goes back to the paper trail. If there’s every any question.”
In 2016, the St. Johns County Commissioners race was pushed to a recount — not because of any perceived mishandling, but simply because the results in District 3 were found to be within a one-half percent margin. After a manual recount, Paul Waldron was declared the winner.
Oakes said that in 2016, 72 percent of votes in the county were cast before the November general election, either by mail-in ballot or in early voting at polling sites open for two weeks earlier.
Mail-in ballots are counted and certified in batches, with supervisors from each of the two major political parties present. Signatures are cross-checked.
In both early voting and Election Day voting, voters must show identification at the polls. Once the voter scans in his or her ballot, they receive a printout confirming receipt of the vote. If there is a problem, such as an over-vote, the voter is alerted of that too. In rare cases, Oakes said, a jam can occur in a machine, in which case voters put their ballots in an “emergency” slot in the machine, and either the machine is fixed or a spare is brought in.
Once the polls are closed, results per precinct are calculated in a tabulator which has a memory stick. The paper ballots are placed in secure containers and brought back to election headquarters. Oakes must certify the official results before they are posted publicly.
“I really do have the greatest confidence in our system,” Oakes said. “Bottom line, it is a very safe system. … There is nothing more sacred than a person’s vote.”