When news broke that Florida’s election crimes division had recommended state police launch an investigation into an alleged ballot-trafficking scheme in Orange County, the local supervisor of elections claimed he was completely unaware of any issues regarding the practice. But a newly unearthed video shows him addressing multiple queries about such operations this past July.
“I understand. I understand,” elections supervisor Bill Cowles, a Democrat, told a woman who said, “there are ballot chasers” operating in Orange County. This was after another woman asked him about the possibility of someone dropping off 50 ballots to be counted. He noted that “the ballot still counts” even if it got to the ballot box through the “bad actions” of “somebody else,” and he said investigations wouldn’t take place until after the election if anyone were able to document drop-box abuse.
Cynthia Harris, a former Democrat candidate for Orange County commissioner, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that “a long-running, widespread ballot harvesting operation” was being run in the predominantly black communities around Orlando. That complaint led Florida’s Office of Election Crimes and Security to recommend state police open a criminal investigation, according to a Wednesday report by Just the News.
Florida, which regularly strengthens its election laws, has banned and criminalized organized ballot-trafficking operations. Under Florida law, absentee voters may designate someone to pick up their ballot, but that person may not collect “more than two vote-by-mail ballots per election, other than the designee’s own ballot” or those “for members of the designee’s immediate family.” Election integrity experts have long said the process of having third parties heavily involved in unsupervised ballot trafficking is ripe for election malfeasance and coercion.
Harris placed some of the blame for the purported ballot-harvesting issues on Cowles, saying he’s “been there since 1996” and that the problem “has been a blind eye turned on our community.” When asked about Harris’s allegations by Just the News, Cowles claimed he was “not aware of any issues regarding ballot harvesting” and was “unable to comment on that at this time.”
The newly unearthed video obtained by The Federalist, however, puts Cowles’ assertion in doubt.
Back in July, Cowles spoke at a virtual event on voter registration and vote-by-mail. During the question period, a woman asked a few questions about dropping off absentee ballots. First, she wondered if the rules limiting ballot drop-offs to family members applied also to the drop boxes stationed outside.
“This was my question regarding the ballots — absentee ballots,” began a woman named Pam, who is reportedly Pam Powell, a former 2022 Democrat primary candidate for Florida’s 41st House District. “You mentioned about the drop-off ballots having to be family members once we go inside the location to drop the ballots off. My question is: There’s a dropbox outside. Is there a limit on the number that you can put in that dropbox?”
Cowles said the statute limiting ballot harvesting to immediate family members plus two other individuals also applied at drop boxes. He said there would be cameras on the drop box at the main election office and that a security guard would be monitoring it. “We’ll have that in play. And it’s a personal responsibility,” Cowles said about following the law. He added, “There’s no documentation, but there is documentation in terms that there are cameras on it.”
Powell followed up. “Right. So my question, if someone is driving through there and they’ve picked up, let’s say 50 absentee ballots, so to speak,” Powell began her query.
Cowles stopped her to point out that only people who request mail-in ballots receive them.
Event host Patricia Rumph interjected: “Bill? I think what Pam is addressing is, yes, I know that we don’t give ballots to anyone, but there are ballot chasers.” Ballot chasers are third-party operatives, usually paid, who inject themselves into unsupervised voting processes.
In her sworn August affidavit, Harris said ballot chasing occurs when individuals called “ballot brokers” visit voters in their homes and assist them with filling out a request for a mail-in ballot, something they are often paid to do. Upon the ballot’s arrival in the mail, voters are purportedly instructed to hold off on filling it out until the broker returns, at which point the broker takes the ballot envelope from the voter, fills it out, and has the voter sign the envelope. In other instances, Harris alleged, brokers advise voters on who the best candidates are, have the voter fill out the ballot and sign the envelope, and proceed to leave the voter’s residence with the completed ballot.
Barring the possibility of an extremely large immediate family, the question of someone “picking up” 50 ballots would seem to reference a ballot-harvesting operation. In addition to Rumph previously running for an Orange County Board of County Commissioners seat in 2018, her campaign expense reports list payments to one of the people Harris identified as a ballot broker.
“I understand. I understand,” Cowles said in response to Rumph’s clarification about ballot-chasing operations. “And it’s, again, it comes down to everybody monitoring each other and reporting it.” But then he added guidance about how harvested ballots always count anyway and how efforts to investigate such operations always take place after the election, not before.
“The bottom line is, the flip side to it is the courts have ruled the voter doesn’t get penalized for the bad actions of maybe somebody else. The ballot still counts, but it’s got to be that documentation to proceed with the investigating,” he said. “And as most things happen in election situations, they always seem to happen after the election and not before the election is over.”
Cowles’ office declined The Federalist’s request for comment.