Florida and Miami-Dade County should tighten rules for voting by mail and make it easier to vote early in order to prevent fraud and plug “gaping holes” in absentee voting, a Miami-Dade grand jury has concluded.
To prove their point, grand jurors made an astounding revelation: A county software vendor discovered that a clandestine, untraceable computer program submitted more than 2,500 fraudulent, “phantom” requests for voters who had not applied for absentee ballots in the August primary.
The grand jury issued 23 recommendations, from reinstating a state requirement that someone witness an absentee voter sign a ballot — thereby making it easier for law enforcement to investigate potential fraud — to urging the county to work closely with assisted-living facilities and nursing homes to deter scammers from targeting the sick and elderly.
“With several narrow victories in races in the 2012 Primary and General Elections, the general sentiment that undetected fraud is occurring is a major problem for this Grand Jury and the citizens of this community,’’ the jurors wrote. “Can the public have confidence in the election results of those close races? We are not certain they can.”
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle impaneled the 21-member grand jury this year after the August primary election, in which two Hialeah ballot brokers known as boleteros were arrested.
“Of the three methods of voting, the one that has always been the most vulnerable, the one where we know fraud has occurred historically ... is in the absentee-ballot process,” Fernández Rundle told The Miami Herald on Thursday, referring also to voting early and on Election Day. Absentee voting, she added, “happens in the shadows. It happens in the dark. It’s the least monitored.”
Rundle said she’s calling lawmakers herself to let them know about the recommendations.
The report, released Wednesday, comes 15 years after another grand jury delved into absentee-voting problems following a 1997 Miami election where fraud was so rampant that a city commissioner wound up in jail and the losing mayoral candidate was declared the winner after a judge threw out absentee votes.
That investigation resulted in a flurry of absentee-voting regulations. But many have since been undone by state lawmakers.
Some of the latest grand-jury recommendations resemble the proposals from a decade and a half ago — with a notable exception: The 2012 grand jury did not suggest that Florida should again require voters to provide a reason for voting “absentee.”
Grand jurors were “strongly inclined” to reiterate that recommendation, which was made in 1997, according to the report. But they changed their minds after “the debacle that was the 2012 General Election,” the report says, noting voting lines of up to seven hours.
“How much longer would the lines have been and how much more time would voters have had to wait in those lines if instead of using absentee ballots, Miami-Dade County’s 242,251 absentee ballot voters actually showed up at their precincts or early voting sites to cast their ballots?” grand jurors asked.
Instead, the grand jury recommended expanding early voting by allowing more voting locations and by providing 120 hours beginning two weeks before Election Day. Current law offers up to 96 hours for eight days beginning 10 days before the election.