Florida county is new focal point of election integrity complaints in pro-election security state

At the Orange County Supervisor of Elections, "it seems as though those who do the right thing in this environment, in this office, are penalized, and those who keep their mouth shut are rewarded," said whistleblower Brian Freid.

Published: December 9, 2022 10:16pm

Updated: December 12, 2022 4:30pm

Orange County, Fla., has become a focal point for election security complaints — from alleged ballot harvesting to unauthorized exposure of protected voter information — despite the state's new emphasis on election integrity.

The office of the Orange County Supervisor of Elections (SOE), which has been led by Democrat Bill Cowles since he was first elected to his position in 1996, has come under scrutiny as whistleblowers have come forward in recent months to reveal an array of alleged election irregularities occurring on his watch.

Last year, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis created the Office of Election Crimes and Security to investigate election crimes full-time. Since then, two whistleblowers in Orange County have filed affidavits alleging unauthorized and potentially illegal election activity they witnessed.

Former Orange County Commissioner candidate Cynthia Harris (D) filed a sworn affidavit in late August with the Secretary of State's office alleging that illegal operations to collect third-party ballots have been going on for years in the Orlando area, where voting activists are paid $10 for each ballot they collect.

The collection and delivery of ballots by third parties — also called "ballot harvesting" — is illegal in Florida.

After voting ended in the state's August primary, Harris was in second place on election night in her county commissioner race, with a total of 3,158 votes, which was supposed to trigger a runoff election because the first-place candidate hadn't received 51% of the votes.

Despite this, Harris somehow "kept losing votes instead of gaining votes," she told the "Just the News, No Noise" TV show in October. "So when they certified the votes, I was a total of 14 votes missing."

The Office of Election Crimes and Security investigated the allegations made by Harris and forwarded the complaint to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for possible violation of state law. FDLE told Just the News in October that it was reviewing the complaint and determining if an investigation was warranted.

Harris said she believes Cowles has allowed ballot harvesting to continue for a long time in the county.

"[T]his has been going on for so long, you have to look at the supervisor of elections himself," Harris told "Just the News, No Noise." "He's been there since 1996. That's 26 years that this has been a blind eye turned on our community, the people that we entrust in the fair elections and the democratic process."

In October, Cowles responded to a request for comment regarding Harris' claim, saying that he was "not aware of any issues regarding ballot harvesting" and therefore "unable to comment on that at this time."

In the office of the Orange County SOE, former Information Systems Director Brian Freid was terminated from his position in October after he called for the firing of another SOE official who two separate investigations found had allowed unredacted voter data to be accessed by unauthorized personnel and had private employee information and multiple pieces of pirated software on his computer.

According to the findings of an internal investigation in May, the SOE official allegedly had thumb drives for ePoll book tablets downloaded with unredacted voter database information, even though the thumb drives were supposed to be blank, Freid told Just the News.

The thumb drives included information for all of Orange County's 900,000 voters, including 4,100 protected voters whose information is supposed to be redacted. Such protected voters include, for example, domestic abuse victims, police, firefighters, politicians and judges.

A third-party investigation found more pirated software on the SOE official's computer, in addition to private information of SOE employees and unauthorized administrative access to all the office's systems.

Despite these findings, Cowles didn't fire the official, and instead gave him 30 days of paid leave during the investigations and let him resign with one month's pay. Cowles also declined to inform the 4,100 protected voters that their confidential information may have been leaked, despite the Florida State Department's recommendation that he do so.

Freid, on the other hand, was fired after refusing to sign a nondisclosure agreement regarding the official who resigned.

"[I]t seems as though those who do the right thing in this environment, in this office, are penalized, and those who keep their mouth shut are rewarded," Freid told "Just the News, No Noise" TV show on Friday.

Freid filed a sworn affidavit with the state department in November regarding the official.

Harris was interviewed by FDLE on Monday, and Freid is going to be interviewed on Friday, the whistleblowers confirmed.

FDLE told Just the News on Friday that the department "has received a complaint" from Freid and that it is "under review."

There have also been other elections fraud complaints made against Cowles that are under review by the Florida Department of State. One complaint alleges that, based on circumstantial evidence, votes were "manipulated electronically by the Supervisor or with his knowledge," West Orlando News reported.

In another complaint, a tablet operator alleges that tablet operators were instructed by the clerk and assistant clerk at the Alafaya Public Library Branch early voting site not to write "cancel" on mail-in ballots that had been surrendered so voters could instead vote early in person, according to West Orlando News.

"By instructing us not to write cancel on the ballot it can potentially be used to vote with," the whistleblower explains in her complaint. 

The whistleblower claims she was dismissed from her position for canceling the surrendered ballots.

Statements from Cowles, who has been the Orange County SOE for 26 years, were provided to Just the News on Monday, saying, "We take all cybersecurity allegations very seriously and have performed and paid for thorough investigations to ensure the security of elections data and voter information.

"I want to be very clear that there has been no data or security breach nor improper use of voter and employee information.

"Additionally, we have been made aware the former employee has obtained counsel and, in anticipation of any pending litigation, I'm unable to comment further. I do look however forward to the process playing out and reaching its just resolution."

Regarding the ballot harvesting complaints, Cowles said, "I am aware of the ballot harvesting complaint and pleased to hear that any suspicious activity was reported to the proper authorities with the Florida Division of Elections and the Office of Election Crimes and Security and assigned to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review.  

"To date, neither I nor may staff have been directly notified by any voter, campaign, or any other source of suspicious activity during either the 2022 Primary or General Elections regarding Vote-by-Mail ballots. In the event our office is given evidence of illegal activity we go through a similar process and report it to the State Attorney’s office, the State Division of Elections, and the FDLE to investigate.

"Additionally, my office is in regular communication with the State Elections office and fully cooperates with any investigation opened by their Office of Election Crimes and Security and the FDLE. We have not been notified of any open investigations from FDLE."

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