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Florida accepts election security money. Now, counties await checks

Five-and-a-half weeks before a statewide primary election, the Legislature accepted $19.2 million in federal money Thursday to strengthen voting systems against threats of intrusion by Russians and others.

A panel of state legislators gave Gov. Rick Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, authority to spend the money. About $15.5 million will be divvied up among all 67 counties with each county receiving at least $50,000.

The action came one day after the deadline for counties to apply for grants, and four months after the U.S. Election Assistance Commission made the money available to states and counties. That followed a highly unusual personal intervention by Scott.

"We are laser-focused on ensuring that elections in Florida are fair, accurate and secure in 2018 and beyond," Detzner testified. IMG_1316

Florida, a target of attempted Russian "phishing" attacks in 2016, remains a target, U.S. homeland security officials have told the state. 

READ MORE: Is Florida's election system safe from a cyber-attack?

Miami-Dade's share of the total is $1.6 million. Broward is in line for $1.2 million, Hillsborough $814,000, Pinellas $666,000, Pasco $349,000 and Hernando $163,000. All grant amounts are based on counties' voting age populations in the 2010 census.

Some counties have criticized the state for its spending criteria, such as requiring that all money be spent in 2018, that unspent money must be returned to the state and it cannot be used to reimburse counties for previous expenses.

The director of the state Division of Elections, Maria Matthews, said money can be used for physical security, cyber-security, voting system upgrades, post-election audits and risk assessment audits.

In testimony before the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, Detzner said the state will use some of its share to pay the salaries of five cyber-security experts the Division of Elections is hiring.

However, Detzner said county election supervisors cannot use their money to hire their own cyber-security experts and he called that "duplicative" of what the state is doing.

"I don't think they need some," Detzner told reporters. "I think that they ought to have their own in-house cyber-specialists, like we hope to. But no, they don't really need their own. They can use ours. That's what the purpose was, to support the supervisors … I think it would be duplicative and I think they should use the resources that we're making available to them."

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who ran Thursday's meeting, cited a "natural tension" between the state and counties over spending money. He said the state showed its cooperation by agreeing to the counties' request to use some of the money to audit the election results after votes are counted.

Florida's primary election is Aug. 28. The general election is Nov. 6.