Conservative group wants to inspect Polk election system

·12 min read
Polk County Supervisor of Elections office in Winter Haven.
Polk County Supervisor of Elections office in Winter Haven.

Lori Edwards, Polk County’s supervisor of elections for 20 years, likens the security protecting her office’s election equipment to that at Fort Knox.

The office’s election management system, the computer server used for everything from creating ballots to recording votes in individual precincts, remains locked in a room controlled by passwords that only two people know, Edwards said. The equipment is stored in a room with two-factor authentication under 24-hour camera surveillance.

A newly formed political group, County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF), is requesting permission to inspect the equipment and capture what it calls a “forensic audit,” a copy of the program’s functions.

The nonprofit group, based in Mulberry, represents a wave of new conservative organizations focusing on “election integrity” following the 2020 election, which prompted former President Donald Trump to make false claims of widespread fraud.

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Though Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican leaders have repeatedly declared that Florida’s elections were free of problems in 2020, groups such as CCDF suggest that election audits or equipment inspections are needed to ensure that Floridians can have confidence in election results.

Lori Edwards
Lori Edwards

Edwards said she is still in discussions with members of CCDF , but she made it clear she is not going to allow any inspections that could compromise Polk County’s election systems.

“It's Fort Knox,” Edwards said of the security in her office. “And so I have to be, you know, 1,000% sure that nothing is being jeopardized. And these folks are worried about the perceptions. Well, we have to worry about also the flip side of that, which is a perception of someone accessing it. We take great pains to limit access to that equipment.”

Edwards said CCDF doesn’t seem to be claiming that any problems marred Polk County’s elections last year.

“They are suggesting that there would be more voter confidence if they are allowed to evaluate,” she said.

Trump and other Republicans challenged the results in key states that Joe Biden captured on his way to winning the presidency. (Trump won in Florida by 3.4%.) Courts repeatedly rejected Trump’s claims that irregularities affected the outcome of the election.

More than 100 Republicans in the U.S. House voted against certifying electoral results from at least one state, and two representing Polk County — Rep. Scott Franklin of Lakeland and Rep. Greg Steube of Sarasota — challenged vote totals for two states.

Despite the lack of evidence to support Trump’s assertions of fraud, the idea that the 2020 election was tainted has become an article of faith among many Republicans.

Meanwhile, a group called Defend Florida began what it calls a “canvassing effort” in June. The organization has been conducting assessments of mail voting from the 2020 election in some counties, including Polk. The group, which calls itself nonpartisan, says its analysis of mail voting found discrepancies on 22% of ballots overall and 27% in Polk County.

Defend Florida describes itself as “a grassroots, citizens organization.” It lists CCDF as one of its partner groups.

On its website, CCDF lists as partners Turning Point USA, a national nonprofit that promotes conservativism on high school and college campuses; Liberty Counsel, a Christian organization that provides legal services; and America’s Future, a conservative nonprofit.

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CCDF has recently run full-page advertisements in The Ledger praising Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for promoting "medical freedom" during the pandemic. Polk County Commissioners Bill Braswell, Neil Combee, Martha Santiago and Rick Wilson signed a letter to DeSantis included in the ad.

Asked if she sees any risk in allowing untrained outsiders to have access to Polk County’s election system, Edwards said she does.

“And so we are proceeding very slowly, and we're proceeding very carefully,” she said. "And before this were to occur … there are going to be a lot of checks to make sure that there is no way that this could in any way pose its own threat to the security of our election equipment. That's the most important thing.”

(L-R) Lori Edwards, Supervisor of Elections, and Cathy Bridges, mail ballot coordinator, with some of the mail in ballots that have already arrived at the Polk County Supervisor of Elections facility in Winter Haven, Florida  October 8, 2020.
(L-R) Lori Edwards, Supervisor of Elections, and Cathy Bridges, mail ballot coordinator, with some of the mail in ballots that have already arrived at the Polk County Supervisor of Elections facility in Winter Haven, Florida October 8, 2020.

Edwards provided the name of the CCDF representative who has contacted her, Sarah Calamunci, listed as election integrity division leader. Reached by phone last week, Calamunci said she didn’t have time to talk but would call back. The Ledger hasn’t heard further from her.

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Jimmy Nelson of Lake Wales, listed as the group’s secretary, also did not respond to a phone message. Nelson, the former school board chairman of the Lake Wales Charter School District, has appeared at Polk County School Board meetings to argue against mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Review yields fraud claim

Defend Florida devotes a page on its website to the canvassing results along with the statement, “You’ve got fraud — by mail!” The group says it began the effort in June, working with Bobby Piton, an Illinois state Senate candidate involved in a much-criticized audit of Arizona’s election results, and Seth Keshel, who said an analysis of the 2020 election found that Trump actually won seven states credited to Biden.

On its site, Defend Florida says that it “gathered both current and historical voter extract data provided by the Florida Secretary of State’s office.” It sought to determine if Florida’s voter database contained “a significant number of invalid registrations and to determine if any votes cast in the 2020 election were unlawful.”

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The group created canvassing teams that attempted to contact 24,000 registered voters in 35 counties, the site said. The canvassers made contact or gathered information from nearly 13,000 registered voters, Defend Florida said, asking how they voted in the 2020 election and if they received any extra ballots in the mail.

Defend Florida claims that it found nearly 5,000 cases of voter fraud, either through “ghost registrations” or “phantom voters,” for which it produced “affidavits.” A graphic on the group’s website offers this breakdown: 88% of voters didn’t live at the address on file, 8% were deceased and 4% of the addresses were not residential.

Defend Florida claimed that 148 out of 550 registrations it checked in Polk County resulted in affidavits, or 27%. That ranked Polk 10th out of the counties surveyed. Alachua and Pinellas shared first place with 61% of canvassed voters allegedly fraudulent.

On its website, the group says it tried to reach 24,000 registered voters in 35 counties in early December. It says it made contact or “gathered information from household members” on nearly 13,000.

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According to the website summary, the canvassers asked, “What method did you use to vote in the last election?” and “Did you receive any extra ballots in the mail?” It says the survey produced 4,942 “affidavits of voter fraud in Florida.”

Defend Florida did not respond to interview requests made by email and through its website.

The claims of voter fraud buttress changes in voting law sought by Defend Florida. The group advocates for a ban on widespread voting by mail, allowing only notarized mail ballots for the disabled, the military and “those who cannot be at the polling station.”

Defend Florida also seeks an end to early voting at polls in favor of a state holiday for elections. (It isn’t clear if that would include all elections or just national ones.) The organization suggests requiring a hand-counted ballot audit “or purge of illegitimate voter registrations” if at least 8% of voters in a precinct sign a petition calling for such actions.

The Republican Party of Polk County posted an item about the Defend Florida report on its official website with the label “Election Fraud.” It appeared the post had been removed after a Ledger reporter left a voicemail for Executive Committee Chairman J.C. Martin asking about it.

Martin did not return the call.

Defend Florida’s website includes interviews with Sidney Powell, a lawyer who has spread conspiracy theories of election fraud, and Michael Flynn, a former Trump Administration official who spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6. Flynn has repeatedly claimed that the election was fraudulent.

Local group checks lists

In Polk County, Edwards said CCDF has been requesting information on voter registrations. The Ledger requested emails from the group to Edwards and her staff, which show CCDF board members first met with the supervisor in August and again in October.

After the first meeting, Edwards responded by email to board member Hannah Petersen on questions about mail ballots not accepted in the 2020 general election.

At some later point, CCDF shared 22 affidavits with Edwards’ office raising questions about voter registrations. Edwards recently told The Ledger that her staff checked and found that none had cast fraudulent votes.

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All but two of the voters had already been moved to the inactive list through the office’s routine maintenance process and had not voted in 2020, Edwards said. Of the other two, one cast a valid mail ballot and the other voted legally and then moved in September of this year.

Edwards said the groups checking voter registrations don’t appear to have up-to-date address lists for voters.

“What I'm hearing from other counties — I haven't checked this myself, but I'm hearing it enough to believe it — is they're using old data,” Edwards said of the affidavits. “Those (20) people that I mentioned that did not vote, all (20) of them were in the removal process.”

In an email from Oct. 20, Edwards said her office removed 8,475 voters from rolls in 2020 for various reasons and had deleted 8,034 so far this year. Another 3,916 had been designated as inactive in 2021, Edwards wrote.

Voters are designated as inactive after failing to vote in two consecutive general elections. If they don’t participate in the next two general elections, they are removed from the voter rolls.

Voters can also be moved to the inactive list if the elections office has an indication of a change of address, such as returned mail or notice from the Postal Service, Edwards said.

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Calmunci sent Edwards a list of about 1,000 voters that she suggested needed to be “moved from the maintenance log due to inactivity in voting for six or more years.”

Edwards replied that her office checked 160 randomly selected voters from the list and found that 158 had been placed on inactive status in the past three years. The other two had already been removed, Edwards wrote. Her office determined that one was a duplicate record, and one was registered in another Florida county.

More recently, CCDF has requested voter lists for at least three precincts in the Lake Wales area as part of a “grassroots initiative,” as Calmunci described it in an email to Edwards’ office. The group also requested an information sheet with the key for codes of voter race and ethnicity.

Statewide trend

Edwards recently attended a statewide meeting of election supervisors in Martin County, and she said other counties are also fielding inquiries about registrations and mail votes from 2020.

“That is happening in just about all counties,” she said. “So especially here now (at the conference), having the opportunity to talk to a lot of supervisors, it’s happening just about everywhere.”

Edwards said she worries that persistent suggestions of fraud could reduce citizens’ confidence in our elections.

“If it was based on the truth and it was good data, it would be good for all of us; it would be good for democracy,” she said of the independent reviews. “But the truth is all supervisors of elections do rigorous list maintenance, following federal and state law on a regular basis, balancing all the information that we have available to keep our voter rolls clean.

“And, to me, it's like they're trying to bake a cake with expired ingredients, and it's not going to come out good. And so, if they wanted to use good information, it would be welcomed. But what they're doing right now is misleading people because they're misinformed.”

Ron Labasky, general counsel to the Florida Supervisors of Elections, a nonprofit association, said “numerous” supervisors have been contacted by Defend Florida or other groups seeking to review votes in the 2020 election.

“I think we know that prior to the election, there was a drumbeat that, you know, mail ballots were fraudulent,” he said. “So I guess when you start from that as your as your ground, base level, anything that happens after that is subject to being questioned by that group.”

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Labasky added: “I feel very confident in saying, whether it's Polk County or any other county, if somebody — if a supervisor is presented with some information that calls into question the integrity of the election, they're certainly going to follow up on that.”

Labasky said he has also heard of requests from outside groups to inspect equipment or election systems in some counties, as CCDF has asked to do in Polk.

“In my opinion, I don't think the statutes in Florida contemplate that, that some independent group or whatever gets to come in and test the equipment,” he said. “I mean, the equipment that we use is certified by the state of Florida. They're the professionals. And if you do any change on that, you've got to submit that change to the department to have it approved.”

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Polk County 'election integrity': Ballot reviews, inspection request