ST PETERSBURG, Fla.  — Although concerns about interference in the electoral process have reverberated since the 2016 election, the biggest obstacle to voting are “myths” that keep people from participating in the election process. 

That’s the message that Pinellas County Deputy Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus attempted to convey to a crowd of around 50 people who gathered at the Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg on Friday night.

“If you are a bad actor, and you do not want people to participate in a process, you put doubt in their mind, and they stay home. And you can do that from a computer anywhere in the world,” she said. 

Existing concerns about election security were enhanced in Florida after Governor Ron DeSantis received a briefing from the FBI earlier this year that confirmed that two Florida counties experienced intrusions during the 2016 election cycle (those counties have never been identified by state or federal authorities). Election officials have emphasized that there was no manipulation of voter data, vote counts or election counts, but concerns remain.

“It’s not only a state issue, and a federal issue, but it’s a county by county issue,” Marcus said, specifying that she spends on average about sixty percent of her time at work focusing on cybersecurity issues. “We are doing everything we can possibly think of using the most current technologies available to protect the integrity of the process,” she added. 

But she wasn’t about to spill any details.

“I can tell you what the public knows, but I cannot tell you the intricacies of how we protect our systems, because then there’s no point in protecting them.”

Although election security is a hot topic, the majority of the questions that Marcus and Pinellas County Elections Communication Director Dustin Chase fielded on Friday regarded the counting of vote-by-mail ballots.

She disputed the idea that those ballots (which have become increasingly more popular each election cycle in Florida) are rejected more frequently than ballots cast at the polls. 

Those ballots can initially be rejected by election officials if the voter fails to sign their ballot or if there is signature “mismatch” that doesn’t match state records. A new law now has extended the deadline for voters to “cure” ballots with signatures that don’t match those on file.  

However, a  report issued last September by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith that said that a greater percentage of mail-in ballots cast by young people and people of color in 2012 and 2016 were rejected compared to ballots cast in person.  

The report did applaud the work of the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office, saying that when it found problems with mail-in ballots, it often went the extra mile to contact voters and get the voter’s official identification so that the vote could be counted. 

Marcus also pushed back on the notion that provisional ballots aren’t counted (those are ballots used to record a vote when there are questions about a voter’s eligibility). 

Another elections issue that has been in the news all year long has been about the implementation of Amendment 4, the 2018 constitutional amendment that called for the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences (with the exception of those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses). 

Subsequent legislation signed by Governor DeSantis blocks giving felons their voting rights back if they have not yet paid off their fines, fees or restitution. That legislation has been challenged by a variety of voting advocacy groups, and a federal judge temporarily blocked the law last month, but only for the 17 people who were plaintiffs in that lawsuit (the state is still considering whether to appeal).

Audience members challenged Marcus about the issue. 

She said that the Pinellas County Supervisors of Elections office accepts all voter registration applications, with those registrations then verified by the Secretary of State’s office in Tallahassee to determine if the voter is eligible.

“I would contact your state representatives, your state senator, and your governor. Because they make the laws,” she said in reaction to the audience’s questions about the law. “You can’t kill the messenger on this.” 

Municipal elections are scheduled to take place next in various counties in Florida on Tuesday, including in Pinellas, Polk and Manatee.