The mass shootings of El Paso, Dayton, Virginia Beach and Sebring–to name very few–are reverberating all the way to the chambers of the Flagler County Commission and the offices of the Supervisor of Elections.
“Five years ago if I’d made this statement people would have said oh, you’re crazy,” County Commissioner Dave Sullivan said at this morning’s meeting. “If somebody came into this room right now and started shooting at us, that’d be horrible, but one of the things people would say was, well, that’s not really a big surprise. I’m serious, that given what’s been going on in this country, shootings in public venues like this or any other place, aren’t a surprise anymore, with three of them in the last four, three or four days. So I think the point in support of extra security measures is that the world has changed, and like it or not, almost any kind of public place and almost any place, but the elections office is one of those places where people can go crazy and get all upset about something. Therefore I think that if the money is available and is not exorbitant, that we should support security improvements to any of our public facilities.”
He made a motion for a supplemental appropriation of $15,300 this year to pay for the security upgrades (one of four supplemental appropriations addressing different needs in county government), which was approved. The $15,300 is not a supplement to the supervisor of elections’ budget, as was previously reported. The money will go into the Government Services Building’s facilities budget as administered by county government.
There will be visible changes at the Supervisor of Elections’ Office. It will be less intimate, its staff less immediately accessible, two of its areas more demarcated by physical barriers: a four-foot high glass separation will divide election staff at the counter that greets visitors, transforming the place into something more like a set of teller windows at a bank. And in the canvassing room, a glass partition will be built around tabulating machines and the big, hulking server, though the server is already encased.
Supervisor of Elections Kaiti Lenhart felt the changes were necessary in light of last November’s historic recount following the general election, when three state races were so close that they had to be recounted. The recount drew an unusually large number of people who wanted to watch and attend canvassing board meetings, which are usually prosaic affairs. At one point, 48 people were in the audience. But a Homeland Security analyst also visited the supervisor of elections’ office (a free service) and provided suggestions for improved security.
Lenhart acknowledged that there’s never been a security issue involving mishandled or stolen ballots. And the physical changes proposed have nothing to do with addressing the more serious concern, and actual security breach, revealed earlier this year–the Russian hacking of two Florida counties’ supervisors’ offices, neither of which have been identified. Lenhart has said previously that Flagler was not targeted.
Nevertheless, other security concerns are emerging, with physical changes in no small part projecting at least the perception that supervisors are beefing up security, and local officials echoing the push: “That one is just critical. We have to get that fixed,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said this morning (though nothing was said to have been broken). “Her office lends itself to something that could go wrong,” Hansen said.
“We are working very closely with the department of Homeland Security not only for cybersecurity, making sure that our network is secure, but also for physical security. Those two things go hand in hand,” Lenhart said. She did not speak of cybersecurity measures.
Last week Lenhart emailed commissioners that changes should be afoot. “During a recent physical security review, it was noted by our regional DHS security adviser that a glass barrier between the public and our Elections Office front counter staff should be considered a high priority,” Lenhart wrote the commissioners. “Additionally, it was noted that there is no physical barrier between the general public and the vote tabulation server and equipment during our public meetings of the Canvassing Board.”
Speaking to commissioners this morning, Lenhart said the analysis included a look at locks on the doors, security systems in place, how close is the parking lot to the front of the office, and so on. And she recalled the 2018 recount: “Many of you were there,” she told commissioners, “we saw that there were some people that were close enough to actually reach and touch a ballot. If they had had the idea they could have reached over and grabbed something from the tabulation system.”
Though the office was designed not long after the historic 2000 election, which had several Florida counties in the glare of international attention (Flagler’s turn never came) it was not designed with big crowds in mind. The enclosure around the balloting machine would fix that seeming flaw. “This glass enclosure would really lend itself to maintaining the transparency of the process, but also keeping our ballots secure,” Lenhart said. She terms the teller-style separation “a half-wall glass barrier,” and says the glass would be shatter-resistant but not bullet-proof.
At least one commissioner, Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien, thought part of the plan was “overkill.”
“You had me up until the enclosure in front of your staff,” O’Brien told Lenhart. “I participated in the recount last year, I watched you and judge [Melissa] Distler run the whole operation, you did a fabulous job, and I did too feel some of that uncomfortableness of a lot of people crowding into an area. I can remember a situation where even judge Distler had asked one of the deputies, hey, can you ask these folks to back up here a little bit. It was that kind of environment. Not negative. It was just crowded. Well-meaning people. And I also understand the need for glass around the vote tabulation machines and I understand the physical side of security and the cyber side of security. But when it comes to the glass in front of your folks, I just wonder if that’s overkill. If that’s part of an overall perimeter, if you will, then maybe I guess I’m OK with that. But I understand and I support all the rest of it. I just didn’t see the logic in that part of the security, the physical security.”
O’Brien noted that the supervisor’s office doesn’t take in any cash, especially not compared to the tax collector’s office on the same first floor of the same building, where much larger sums are transacted. Such departments “have a lot greater security issues that we haven’t addressed. That’s the only part I guess I just felt a little at a loss,” O’Brien said.
Lenhart said her front-counter staff doesn’t handle much cash but does handle mail ballots, which she called “priceless.”
“If we were ever to have someone come in, to jump the counter, you just never know,” Lenhart said. “When we have people assembling packages on the other side of a counter that’s not very high, even a tall person could reach over and grab something if someone were to walk away.”
O’Brien maintained his difference of opinion on the issue but voted with the majority to approve the $15,300 expenditure. The new measures should be in place ahead of October’s duties at the elections office, when staffers begin preparation for the March 5 presidential primary.