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Absentee Ballot Fraud (Part 2): How It Works

October 25, 2013

Fraud involving absentee ballots is nothing new in South Florida.

According to the 2012 Grand Jury report on absentee ballot fraud, the 1997 election for mayor of Miami was so plagued by ballots filled out by boleteros that an investigation was launched, ultimately resulting in the successful prosecution of some 54 people, including a City of Miami commissioner, his chief of staff, and the chief of staff’s father.  Following a civil lawsuit by the losing candidate (Joe Carollo), the judge found fraud in so many absentee ballots that he threw them all out, which resulted in the losing candidate being declared the winner over his opponent, Xavier Suarez.  [Karma note:  Xavier Suarez is the father of Francis Suarez, who recently withdrew his candidacy for mayor of Miami after his campaign workers pled guilty to absentee ballot shenanigans; Joe Carollo is the older brother of Frank Carollo, who is running for re-election as District 3 commissioner.  This is one incestuous town!]  Something similar happened in Hialeah in 1993.

The grand jury report notes that the prosecutions for the 1997 fraud were successful—and even possible—because witness signatures were required on the ballot envelope, which enabled investigators to track down people who had “witnessed” multiple ballots.  Since then, the requirement was reduced to only one witness, and in 2004 eliminated entirely. Now it is very difficult to tell who may have “assisted” a voter in casting her ballot.  For that reason, one of the key recommendations of the grand jury is to reinstate the requirement of a witness signature and contact information.

One of the major old-school methods for absentee ballot fraud is to work the senior living facilities. Old people (and I speak as someone who might be considered one) are often easy prey for conmen who gain their trust and then manipulate or deceive them into doing something they otherwise wouldn’t do. Boleteras “help” the elderly with their ballots, sometimes actually filling them out, and volunteer to deliver them.  [Note:  Under current law, anyone who assists a voter has to sign a declaration that he is not an employer or union official, but there is nothing that prohibits a paid or volunteer campaign worker from doing so.  The grand jury recommended adding such a clause to the declaration.]  Once the boletera has the ballots in hand, she can deliver them, mail them, alter them, or—if they’re not marked for the candidate she’s working for—destroy them.

Then, there are the campaign workers who show up at the homes of people who have received absentee ballots and offer to “help”.  This may have been what was going on in Homestead last week.

How do they know which houses to target?  Shockingly, candidates have access to the names and addresses of anyone who requests an absentee ballot, which is something that you and I do not have.  Yes, you read that right.  Information about voters who request absentee ballots is treated as confidential, EXCEPT for “the voter requesting the ballot; a canvassing board; an election official; a political party or official thereof; a candidate who has filed qualification papers and is opposed in an upcoming election; and registered political committees or registered committees of continuous existence, for political purposes only.

You can sense the incredulity and indignation of the grand jury about this:  “Simply stated, individuals and groups who have a direct and obvious interest in issues or candidates on the ballots have the ability to get the name of every voter who requests an absentee ballot, the voters’ residence address and the date the voters’ absentee ballot is mailed.  The persons who have the most to gain from the election are the ones who have access to this confidential information.  For someone who is predisposed to engage in inappropriate and/or illegal activity with respect to absentee voters, this…arms them with the specific information of whom they should target and where and when they should move in on the target. The…”exception” effectively paints a bull’s-eye target on the back of every vulnerable absentee voter.  We strongly recommend that the legislature remove the bull’s-eye by limiting the public records exemption, and making this information available only to a canvassing board or an election official…”

These old-school techniques are specifically geared to victimize vulnerable elderly and poorly educated elements of the community and generally require some face-to-face contact with the would-be voter.  The newer approach of requesting bogus ballots on-line or by phone does not.

As Herald journalist Marc Caputo pointed out, all you need to get an absentee ballot is someone’s phone number, address, and date of birth.  He then described how he did it by calling from a blocked phone and having the ballot delivered to a co-worker’s address.   The only question asked was whether future absentee ballots should be sent out for the next three years.  [Fun fact:  More than half of all ABs are sent out automatically, a practice that the grand jury found an invitation to fraud and recommended requiring a new request for every such ballot.]

As Caputo observed,  A sophisticated political group that decides to steal ballots could call as if they were other people — say unsuspecting elderly voters or the 80,000 people in Miami-Dade who vote so infrequently that they’re classified as “inactive” voters. Chances are those voters would never know someone else requested a ballot in their name and had it sent to any of the thousands of foreclosed properties in Miami-Dade.”

According to the grand jury report, “the security of the on-line absentee ballot request system is very low, as there are no user specific log-ins or passwords required by the voter requesting a ballot.”  Before the 2012 primaries a computer program submitted more than 2,500 fraudulent AB requests, routed through anonymizers overseas to conceal the IP address of the requesting computer. They were flagged as suspicious partly because they were being submitted at a rate that was humanly impossible.  Jeffrey Garcia, the former chief of staff to Congressman Joe Garcia, who recently pled guilty to requesting 1,700 ABs without voters’ permission, apparently was nabbed because the operation was unsophisticated enough to use a computer with an identifiable IP address.

Theoretically, the safeguard on this type of fraud would be the check of the signature on the AB against the one on file with the election bureau.  However, such checks are done visually by election department employees, and given the sheer volume of ABs to be scrutinized, the likelihood of missing a forged signature (or misidentifying a genuine one as false) is significant.

With such feeble safeguards in place, the chances of getting caught and convicted have been pretty slight, unless the perps made some rather dumb mistakes.  And even if they were caught, the penalties have generally amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.  Jeffrey Garcia seems to be one of the very few to have gotten jail time.  The grand jury recommended raising ballot fraud from a misdemeanor to a third-degree felony as an added deterrent, and noted that lax enforcement of the laws has been the Achilles heel of the voting system.

How likely is all of this to change?  As long as Republicans control the state government, don’t hold your breath.  As Caputo observed, Republicans dominate absentee balloting and have little incentive to limit it even though absentee ballots are the biggest single source of voter fraud.  They’d much rather make draconian purges of voter rolls, cut back on early voting, and suppress voter registration.

Current regulations regarding absentee voting can be found here.

One Comment
  1. Terry L Barnes permalink

    This is brilliant reporting Mr. Smith you’ve been a Florida (Miami) resident for how long 6 years or less and you have caught on to south floridas corrupt local government system as if you were a long time resident of over 30 years or more!

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