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Election chiefs vow to battle campaign lies

FILE - County employees process mail-in ballots at a Clark County election department facility on Oct. 31, 2020 in Las Vegas.
John Locher
FILE - County employees process mail-in ballots at a Clark County election department facility on Oct. 31, 2020 in Las Vegas.

Elections supervisors in the western Panhandle are joining forces with their state and federal counterparts to support the #TrustedInfo2022 Campaign.

“Together, our goal is to ensure the integrity of Florida’s elections, and to support fair, honest, and accurate elections," said Laurel Lee, Florida’s secretary of state in the video about the campaign.

This is a campaign in part, from the National Association of Secretaries of State, aimed at promoting state and local election officials as trusted sources for elections.

“With the 2022 elections fast approaching, supervisors across the state and I have been working around the clock to prepare voters like you for the upcoming election cycle,” Lee said in the video. “There’s a lot of information about voting and elections on the Internet and social media.

“Not all of it is credible.”

All 67 elections supervisors in Florida are working with the project, including Escambia County’s David Stafford.

“I guess the biggest message is: When in doubt — particularly when it comes to the actual administration of the elections, be basics, just the facts ma’am, the where, when and how — reach out to us,” Stafford said.

He adds that the effort is focusing on battling misinformation.

“Wrong information about elections is nothing new, although it seems to have been more pronounced in the last couple of election cycles,” Stafford said. “So the idea is to try to get folks to make sure that when there are questions about where to vote, when to vote, how to vote, that you make sure that you’re going to your trusted sources — the secretary of state or at your local level.”

And no area is immune. Stafford points to some misinformation scattered around Escambia and the rest of the Panhandle during the 2020 election cycle.

“There were some emails that went out to voters that were ultimately traced by the federal government back to Iranian actors, kind of threatening to voters,” said Stafford. “We’re not going to be disappointed with voters trying to reach out to us, trying to get some additional information."

One obstacle that elections offices face is that the information landscape, including the media, has changed dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years. Stafford says his mantra when speaking to various groups is for them to decide your trusted information source — and stay vigilant.

“If you hear something that sounds goofy, like they’ve moved the election from Tuesday to Wednesday, or changed all of your voting locations, or changed the hours for early voting, or there’s new requirements — something that just sounds odd.”

Also new for 2022 is an enhanced ballot-tracking system. Those choosing to vote by mail can sign up for “push notifications.”

“We’ll let them know when their ballot was sent in the mail, when it was returned back to us, whether or not there was an issue with it — if it was unsigned or the signature didn’t match — and ultimately when it was counted,” Stafford said. “That’s just one of the enhancements that we’ve got. But ultimately, the important thing is knowing the basics. Being able to spot efforts to try to inject doubt into our elections.”

While there is demand for online voting, Okaloosa County’s Paul Lux says don’t look for the opportunity anytime soon.

“Only because one of the things that helps ensure security of the elections is our ability to go back to those paper ballots,” he said. “That was one of the big, inherent problems with touch-screen voting when it first came into Florida following the 2002 Help America Vote Act,” Lux said. “In Florida, there was no verified paper audit trail.”

The touchscreens were removed by then-governor Charlie Crist, with the state returning to paper ballots.

Also, on Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation creating a police force dedicated to pursuing voter fraud and other election cases. Senate Bill 524 expands on a 2021 state law that passed as Republicans across the country argued steps were needed to be taken to combat fraud after President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election.

DeSantis says the additional changes should give Floridians more confidence about the voting process.

“We just want to make sure that whatever laws are on the books, that those laws are enforced," the governor said. "If people know we are going to enforce the law, I think that everyone will be very happy.

Critics, including state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, argue changes in the bill are intended to suppress voting by minorities and Democrats.

“It’s hard enough to register people to vote and to try to get them to pay attention,” she said. “So, they put these harsh criminal penalties on top of the hard work they are already doing. Frankly, it’s wrong.”

More about NASS’ Trusted Info 2022 Campaign, visit canivote.org; and for trusted information about state and local elections visit dos.myflorida.com/elections, or visit the websites of any county elections office.