Using the auditing system will go a long way toward improving the reputation of the state's election system, said state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

Florida's local election supervisors can use their independent auditing systems – which are not part of the voting system – to recount ballots under a bill signed over the weekend by Gov. Ron DeSantis.


The long-sought permission will save time and taxpayer money resolving disputed or close elections by allowing supervisors to use high-speed automatic tabulators that run on an independent system to quickly do what it normally takes hundreds of hours for paid, part-time workers to do, according to election supervisors who support the measure.


Florida is known for its hyper-close elections that trigger automatic recounts. In 2018, recounts were required in the races for governor, agriculture commissioner and U.S. Senate. County supervisors of elections had to hire extra staff and pay overtime to plow through the mountain of ballots that needed to be fed a second time through the same equipment.


Using the auditing system will go a long way toward improving the reputation of the state's election system, said state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and sponsor of the bill in the Senate.


"Not only does it save time during a recount when you have people at the door for results, it will be far more accurate than going through thousands of ballots by hand," Montford said. "I think this will create far more accuracy and lend far more credibility to the recount process."


Under state law, if the first unofficial results indicate a margin of victory in any race is one-half of one percent or less, each canvassing board must run the ballots through their automatic ballot counters again to see if the returns correctly reflect the votes cast.


If the machine recount indicates a margin of victory of one-quarter of one percent or less, each canvassing board must conduct a manual recount of the overvotes and undervotes.


Under the new law, endorsed by the Florida Supervisors of Elections, all 67 county election supervisors have the option of using "automatic tabulating equipment" to process ballots in a recount, if they have them.


Currently, nine counties have the audit tabulators: Bay, Broward, Columbia, Indian River, Hillsborough, Leon, Nassau, Putnam, and St. Lucie.


They won't get to use them in the upcoming August primary and November elections, however, because the law does not take effect till Jan. 1.


Because the system’s roots are in auditing, it is designed with transparency in mind, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley said.


"We were already doing recounts with this system, but were not allowed to record the results," Earley said. "We were doing it for the audit."


Automatic tabulators examine, count and record votes just like ballot tabulators do, but are run on independent software and equipment, he said.


If a machine recount is required, the new law allows ballots to be run through the auditing tabulating equipment instead of the voting system’s ballot counters that performed the original tally, according to the bill analysis.


Overvotes and undervotes can be identified and sorted at the same time the machine recount is conducted in case a manual recount is needed.


ClearAudit, the auditing system software developed in Leon County since about 2009, conducts a complete audit in a fraction of the time it takes to conduct a manual recount and is already certified by the Department of State.


The same equipment is used by other states as their primary tabulation system and the state of Maryland is using it for its post-election audits to see if a recount is required.


ClearAudit, owned by Clear Ballot Systems, Inc., is an independent, automated system that captures a ballot image using scanners. "It uses the scanned images to independently tabulate votes and compare results against the voting system results," the Division of Elections said.


Using the audit systems would eliminate the need to pay hundreds of hours of overtime refeeding each ballot through the same vote tabulation machines, sometimes requiring a solid five days in a row to get the job done, Earley said.


And it allows for the immediate turnaround of recount results, he said. All it takes is the push of a button to recount the ballots if necessary, Earley said, "as opposed to the mad scramble which has characterized all our past recounts in Florida."


Contact Jeff Schweers at jschweers@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.