By Perry Busby
A bad reputation is one of the most difficult things to overcome. Whether earned or perceived, an unflattering rep is the lens through which others view and judge our actions. Any misstep is intentional, and all errors are the manifestation of your objectionable character. The worst part about having a bad reputation is, any accusation levied against you becomes plausible. It doesn’t matter if it’s based on facts, supposition, or conspiracy, just so long as the narrative fits neatly with your reputation.
Some may argue this was the case on November 30, 2018 when then Florida Gov. Rick Scott suspended embattled Broward County elections supervisor Dr. Brenda Snipes. Scott, who had just claimed a U.S. Senate seat by beating Bill Nelson ater a recount, accused Snipes of voter fraud and even filed a lawsuit.
Let’s be clear, when it comes to voting, Florida’s reputation is about as pristine as a coastal shore during red tide. Broward County has also had more than its share of voting snafus. The county’s suspect reputation was cemented long before Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Snipes to the election supervisor position in 2003.
implemented many enhancements with regard to expanding polling locations, improving early voting and increasing voter registration among eligible high school students. Those successes, however, are overshadowed by a series of controversies that include, appearing to accept unlawful votes, destroying ballots, busting deadlines and violating the Sunshine Law concerning open records.
“It’s clear that there needs to be an immediate change in Broward County,” Scott stated in a prepared statement announcing the suspension. Among the reasons for the suspension Scott cited, “misfeasance, incompetence and neglect of duty.”
To replace Snipes, who was reelected to the post in 2016, Scott called on his longtime fixer, attorney Peter Antonacci.
Antonacci, who says he first met Rick Scott in 2012, has served as the former governor’s handyman of sorts. Scott appointed him to fill in as state attorney in Palm Beach County in 2012, made him his general counsel for two years, appointed him to head the South Florida Water Management District in 2015 and then Enterprise Florida in 2017. Prior to being Scott’s Mr. Fix-It, Antonacci served as top deputy for Attorney General Bob Butterworth.
“I know that Pete will be solely focused on running free and fair elections, and will not be running for election and will bring order and integrity back to this office,” Scott said in his statement.
This statement, coupled with appointing someone with Antonacci’s pedigree to run the office has many Broward voters asking, “What’s broken?” and “What is Peter Antonacci fixing?”
“I want to make sure elections are run smoothly and the people get what they paid for. That is a credible election, with reliable results that are reported in a timely manner,” Antonacci replied when asked what was here to fix. “Our community suffers when the people see on election night, a county like Miami-Dade, which is larger than ours, file results that are accurate and timely.”
In March, four months after his appointment, Antonacci faced his first election. A municipal election comprised of 430,000 voters in seven cities. It was a small election, comparatively speaking. Although the 9.5% voter turnout was .5% below the national average for municipal elections held in an odd year, the lack of participation can also be attributed to the fact that vote-by-mail and election day voting were the only options available.
The election in March exposed a few vulnerabilities in their process. Thirty minutes after polls had closed, all but eight precincts had reported their results. According to Antonacci, the problems were due to procedural errors encountered while closing down the precinct.
Antonacci says he is tweaking the process but for the most part, it appears that he is adhering to the mantra, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
So far, fiscal management and improving the purchasing system has been his primary focus. “Paying poll workers on time and consolidating the different pay scales, so all poll workers are paid the same rate was a major concern. We were able to implement those changes in time for the March election and the feedback we received was extremely encouraging,” said Antonacci.
Continuing the voter education and pre-registration in high schools and holding voter information sessions are two initiatives he highlighted when asked how his office will engage the community. When asked how he plans to work collaboratively with community-based organizations to register and educate voters, Antonacci says the SOE voter registration mobile unit will continue to be available for community events.
Stiffer challenges await Antonacci as the 2020 election approaches, among them is SB 7066, a pending bill in the Florida legislature that modifies the eligibility requirements for individuals whose voting rights were restored under Amendment 4.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge will be securing the county’s voting system from foreign cyber threats. During the 2016 general election, two Florida county’s voter registration databases were infiltrated by Russian hackers. A fact that has recently become public. According to the FBI, there was no evidence that voting rolls were changed. However, they couldn’t say with certainty hackers did not manipulate data.
The belief that just because a voting system isn’t connected to the internet it is protected from hackers is naïve. In 2015, it was revealed that ES&S, the largest manufacturer of voting machines in the U.S., had installed remote access software on its machines. ES&S claims it no longer installs the software on their machines, but no effort was made to remove the software from machines purchased prior to 2015. Broward County uses two voting machines by ES&S, the DS 200 and ExpressVote. Many of which were purchased in 2014.
I believe Mr. Antonacci sincerely wants to improve Broward’s reputation and his push to eliminate unforced errors will go a long way in accomplishing that goal. However, a cyberattack by Russia, Iran or any other foreign adversary poses a huge risk for all American voting machines. It is my hope that the newly appointed SOE will look beyond retooling established processes and consider including hand audits and posting precinct totals and poll tapes as part of the process. Implementing such measures may impact the timeliness of reporting, but failing to ensure the accuracy of voter data will only prolong Broward’s proclivity for ineptness.