ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - The highest voter turnout in Orange County's last four primary elections, according to Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, has not topped 22 percent.
The 2018 primary may be lower than that.
Vote-by-mail ballots have been accepted for the past two weeks in Orange County and Cowles said of the 149,000 ballots mailed out this year, only 30,000 have been returned with two weeks until election night.
Cowles believes Sen. Bill Nelson's comments last week that "Russians are in Florida's elections records" and have "penetrated certain counties in the state" without offering proof, is causing distrust.
"We see this as a way to disturb the voting system because there's not been documented proof on these issues and so it's disturbing to the voters and the voters are hearing about this and I think they're just turning away and that's what we should be reversing," Cowles said. " I have not been notified by any authority and we're working very closely with DHS, the FBI, secretary of state and none of them have verified to us that there's been any penetration."
Monday night, Nelson told The Associated Press that it would be "foolish to think" the Russians are not continuing their efforts to target Florida.
Nelson had said proof of the allegations of Russians hacking Florida's elections systems is "classified."
On Tuesday afternoon, Nelson's office did respond to questions about those comments.
On Friday, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI insisting "Florida's voting systems and elections databases remain secure."
"We have had outside sources come in and look our system, done penetration studies, studies on the traffic in and out of it and we are not finding any indication that we have had any intrusions into our elections database," Cowles said. "If you want to make a message to the voters stand up and go out and vote and show 'em that you're voting."
Cowles said Florida's elections systems cannot be hacked because voters mark their vote on a paper ballot.
"Since 2006, under Gov. Charlie Crist, Florida became a paper-based state. So everybody votes on a paper ballot," Cowles said. "And so when you mark your ballot it's a permanent mark, and so your vote can't flip. Some states, like Georgia, are still using the touch-screen voting system. So we keep hearing about the touch screens here but we don't have them. Everybody votes on a paper ballot and when you put your mark on here it's a permanent mark."
Cowles said the machines that count the ballots are nothing more than sophisticated scanners with modems. The only time they are connected to the internet is when poll workers modem-in the results to elections headquarters at the end of the night.
Cowles said the modem results are then checked against the paper ticket printed out from the counting machines to make sure they match.
After the election, Cowles said the machines are then audited by randomly recounting a precinct using the paper ballots.
The ballots are then stored for 22 months.
"And the bottom line is we still have a paper ballot and we can recreate every election using the paper ballot," Cowles said. "This is the way Florida can guarantee your vote will be accurately counted."
Early voting starts Friday in Orange County and Saturday for most of Central Florida.
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