Supervisor of Elections Office to purchase new equipment in effort to prevent outside interference with coming elections

County Commission approves Supervisor of Elections Turner’s request, so system can be installed prior to Aug. 23 Primary Election

(Editor’s note: This article was updated early in the afternoon of May 2 with more details about the purchasing plans.)

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner. File photo

On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota County Commission approved a request from Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner for new equipment designed to protect election results from any outside interference.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler referenced hacking concerns before he made the April 26 motion. The action followed remarks from County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, who brought up Turner’s request during the Reports section of the April 26 commission meeting.

Ziegler noted that he had talked with Turner after Lewis passed along to the board members a copy of Turner’s formal request.

In that April 22 correspondence, Turner wrote, “In preparation for the 2022 primary and general elections, my office plans to purchase a ballot imaging and inventory tracking system to improve preparation and administration of future election audits and potential recounts.

“The ClearBallot Group system will digitally store and sort ballots to prepare for statutorily required post-election audits. The software captures ballot images, through digital scanning, which will allow my office to pinpoint the location of each stored ballot during and after an election.

“After system certification is completed through the Florida Department of State,” Turner continued, “the ClearBallot Group’s Clear Audit software/hardware will allow our county to audit 100% of voted ballots and provide an independent verification of results by comparison to the county’s election voting system.

“The cost of the hardware/software is approximately $250,000. I would like to move forward with the purchase, with the understanding that the County will help reimburse my office for the purchase cost before the end of FY2022,” Turner added.

In concluding the letter, Turner wrote, “Thank you for your assistance and support to help keep Sarasota County’s elections efficient, secure, and transparent.”

This is the banner on the Clear Ballot website. Image from the company

During the commission’s April 26 discussion, Ziegler explained that the system will not be connected to the internet. “The machines will be able to verify the [ballot] count that goes on throughout the county,” Ziegler added.

“No one can get in there and maliciously, if you will … adjust anything,” Ziegler said of the equipment. “I think [this] will be very good for our community.”

Ziegler also noted, “Ron Turner does a fantastic job in town. He’s one of the few people Democrats, Republicans, everyone in between, just thinks he’s very competent and does a good job.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler. News Leader image

“In Sarasota,” Ziegler added, “I have full confidence in our elections, and I appreciate [Turner’s] efforts.”

Fraud is not a concern in Sarasota County elections, Ziegler continued, as it is in “other parts of the country.”

Chair Alan Maio, who seconded the motion, said he also had spoken with Turner. Maio called the Supervisor of Elections Office “just a topnotch, excellent operation.”

County Administrator Lewis pointed out that Turner has enough funds on hand to cover the cost of the equipment, which Turner wanted to have in place prior to the Aug. 23 Primary. (The General Election this year is on Nov. 8.)

Lewis added that he had told Turner that he felt the commissioners would be very supportive of the plan.

Nonetheless, Lewis continued, the commissioners might need to approve a budget amendment later on, “to true up [Turner’s Fiscal Year 2022] budget …”

During the commission’s June 2021 budget workshops, Turner’s budget for this fiscal year was listed as $7,670,754, up 19.2% from the 2021 fiscal year total of $6,435,331. Turner has pointed out in presentations to the board members that his budget always is higher in election years because of the extra expenses associated with conducting the elections.

Following the April 26 board action, Lewis sent Turner an email, writing, “You are good to go. Very positive support from the county commission.”

Turner responded, “Thank you all! Appreciate your efforts and support!! Signing the contract today and moving along with the purchase asap.”

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question, Kim Radtke, director of the county’s Office of Financial Management (OFM), reported on May 2 that Turner’s staff is in the process of preparing the purchase order for the equipment. “Supervisor Turner would like to implement [the system] and train elections staff on [its use] prior to the Aug. 23 primary,” a statement from the Supervisor of Elections Office to the OFM said. “Payment for the ballot imaging/inventory system will be paid by out of our FY22 Budget.”