[Image via abcnews]
Ion Sancho of Leon County (Tallahassee) FL, one of Florida’s (and the nation’s) most experienced and outspoken county election officials, is retiring at the end of the year after almost three decades on the job. Recently, he gave a “five questions” interview with Sunshine State News – and I thought it was too good not to share:
Ion Sancho has long been one of the most-outspoken elections officials in Florida. But after overseeing this fall’s voting in Leon County, he will step down after nearly three decades as an elections supervisor.
A familiar figure to those who have followed Florida’s frequent election controversies, Sancho often was quoted in The New York Times, Washington Post and other media outlets. He generally argued that elections officials hadn’t gone far enough in preserving the sanctity of the vote, and he sometimes sparred with state elections officials. He is perhaps best known for challenging the security of certain voting machines, for which some vendors refused to sell their machines to him.
Sancho’s zeal for accurate voting springs from his own candidacy in a botched election, a 1986 race for the Leon County Commission in which thousands of people were unable to cast ballots. Two years later, Sancho ran for supervisor of elections and won. Retiring after seven terms, he plans to write a book on the 2000 election.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Ion Sancho:
Q: Given all the recent changes to the congressional and state Senate districts, how much of a challenge has it been for the supervisors to be ready for this year’s elections?
SANCHO: Most of us are up to speed. … In Leon County, it’s not a problem. We have the best GIS department, we can spin on a dime. In fact, we could have reprogrammed the entire March primary under the new districts. But most of the supervisors of elections couldn’t do that. And where the big problem is is the rural counties. The rural counties don’t possess the kind of mapping capability that I possess in Leon County, or that Palm Beach would possess.
That’s why, I think, the redistricting that has occurred with the new congressional districts was postponed until after the March 15 election — even though that wasn’t an ideal direction from the state’s point of view, because it means that you can’t use the March 15 election to target (use election data to maximize voter turnout) for the August and November elections because the precincts will have changed, the districts will have changed. And the state originally wanted to do all of this so that you could have used March 15 for targeting. Well, I’m sorry, the rural counties couldn’t do that.
I do believe that we’ll all get there at the end, at different speeds. It’ll take about two weeks for us to re-do the (voter registration) cards, and probably about 50 percent of all the voters in Leon County will be affected.
Q: The March primary saw tens of thousands of Floridians switching their party registrations to vote for Republican or Democratic candidates. Talk about why you’ve called for the state to have an open primary.
SANCHO: Well, it’s very clear that citizens want to vote when there are dynamic contests. To me, that is the most critical variable. People will vote if you give them choices. And from the very beginning of the primary season, there’s been high voter turnout. Because people are roiled. On both sides of the aisle.
And when we looked at our data, we saw that many people had registered as no-party affiliation — otherwise known as independent — over the course of the last two presidential elections. Those individuals would not be allowed to cast a ballot in the March 15 president-preference primary. … And so we mailed out 38,000 post cards to the individuals who were not eligible to vote but were properly registered and residents of Leon County, and over 11 percent of those citizens changed to a party so they could vote. Over 11 percent of the entire database changed themselves. And the only thing that we did to facilitate that was to send out a simple post card to the voters, letting them know this is a closed-primary state.
And the reason that we had to do that is that the state sends no information to the citizens. We used to spend tens of millions of dollars telling people how to play the Florida Lottery and which games were available. The state doesn’t spend a dime telling citizens what the rules are to be able to vote legally in the state of Florida. Unlike the state of California, the Florida secretary of state does not mail out pamphlets describing the rules. And there is no pamphlet from the state when a person registers to vote.
Q: So are there changes that — in your opinion — should be made that the state has been unwilling to do?
SANCHO: Well, I will tell you that following the debacle of the 2012 election, the Florida Association (of Supervisors of Elections) really fought and got all the necessary changes we need today. We have early voting, including Sunday now, before the general election. That was something the Legislature had not wanted to provide. But in the urban areas, it’s necessary.
We have an additional wild card, for example, that we could use to establish a site, regardless of what it is. You remember the controversy a couple of years ago, when Alachua County asked the secretary of state if they could use the University of Florida football field to conduct elections. And the secretary of state’s office said, “No, it is not one of these that fits in one of these slots that the Legislature has mandated.” Now, with this wild card, if Alachua County wanted to do that, they could.
So we now have the laws following the problems that occurred in the 2012 election, when that little old lady waited five hours to vote at 2 in the morning, to cast a ballot. We’ve solved those problems, I think, through opening up in-person early voting. That’s not going to be the problem. The problem is we don’t require science to look at the process to confirm the validity of our elections. For example, most citizens assume that the voting machines count the votes correctly. And that assumption might be correct, but it might not be. Florida does not check statistically after the elections to ensure that what the machine said is correct. We don’t do that.
Leon County, for example, has the technology to do a 100 percent audit and recounts — which we do. Because I went through the 2000 election, and I never want to go through that again. And actually, there are five counties in the state of Florida (where) with the flip of a switch, I can give you an instant recount — oh, probably within 15 minutes of the close of the election. Never you have to worry about. … However, here’s the ironic part about that: While I have the state-of-the-art technology that would give me a 100 percent accurate recount, I’m not allowed to use that in a recount event in Florida. I have to go to the old statute, which is in fact not, in my opinion, scientifically rigorous to ensure that your votes are counted.
So what I would do is, I would require the state to ensure — either through the use of automatic voting-audit equipment, like I have, or excellent random-sampling techniques, which in fact look at all the races — one of those two types of applications need to be brought into Florida instead of the current recount (process).
Reporters say, “A race is so close, we’re going into a manual recount.” (But elections officials) don’t count all the votes in a manual recount. They only look at the ballots that weren’t read by the machine.
Q: Can voting machines be hacked?
SANCHO: Probably not, because most don’t connect to the Internet. For example, no Florida voting machine is allowed to have Wi-Fi capability. That’s just simply the law. And in fact, in most of the states, machines cannot have Wi-Fi capability because in fact those that did on the market could be hacked. You really can’t have any connection to that voting system.
When we’re, for example, loading up data on election night and we get our numbers, we actually load them up on a disk, take them out of that computer, go to another computer that’s not connected … and put the disk back in and look at the data on a completely separate unit that is not connected to our system.
That kind of degree is necessary — as is, for example, requiring more than one individual to program the voting machines. We actually require multiple individuals — and the programming of the voting machines is done on camera so we can ascertain after the fact that everything has been done properly. You must be that cautious in this process.
Q: Is voter fraud a genuine threat, or exaggerated for political reasons?
SANCHO: Where I see the greatest threat to the election system is not from voters. An individual that has a false ID can maybe vote one time. There’s no evidence of in-person fraudulent voting ever changing an election in the history of the United States. So the idea that you must have IDs to prevent fraud is laughable.
Where there is fraud is voting by mail, where the votes are cast not in front of any election official — and with the individual (voter), you don’t know whether they’re intimidated or not. Are they somebody’s parents that have gotten absentee ballots, and the children are voting them? Those kinds of things happen — which is one of the reasons I like in-person early voting and election-day voting. I actually like people coming to an official, presenting basic identification, and then the process moves on from there. You don’t have any safeguards with mail ballots, and that’s the problem. …
Early voting is really not helpful or hurtful toward anyone. It just provides greater access. How you deploy it, for example. … If you don’t provide all regions of your community with early voting, that can bias the process, which is why we see so many fights in other states. For example, in North Carolina, some of the big fights are, are you going to put an early-voting center in a university? Which is an excellent idea, except that if you don’t want university students to vote, you’ll be against the idea. And that’s what I find offensive, regardless of who it helps. The process needs to be accessible to all of us.
Thanks to Sunshine State News for this interview; I’ve had numerous opportunities to encounter and work with Ion over the years – and there is no one more committed to the work of election administration. The election community will miss him, but I’m glad he’ll be sticking around to wrap up 2016 … and then I will immediately begin waiting for his book!