The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Editorial: Stop absentee ballot fraud

Miami-Dade elections officials and the office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle have found an object worthy of praise — the computer. And with good reason. Had computers inside the elections office not detected a series of unusual requests for absentee ballots last July, August’s primary election could have been a nightmare.

The Miami-Dade elections department received more than 2,500 suspicious ballot requests within a 2 1/2 week period in July. It was clear that the system was being hacked. The computer responded as it should and flagged the requests, which were later rejected.

Now, the challenge is to identify who was behind this latest episode of Miami Ballot Vice. It’s a question that could have been answered months ago if the two agencies now heaping praise on a machine had done their jobs more effectively.

As it turned out, the county elections department did not provide prosecutors working on a grand-jury probe all the IP addresses from the attempted hacking in a timely manner. The IP addresses, which identified where the requests originated, were mostly foreign. Those were presented to the state attorney’s office, where an investigation was not initiated because they originated outside the office’s jurisdiction.

Four months later, as the grand jury prepared its final report, a new investigator contacted the elections office. It was only then that prosecutors finally received some critical information: three domestic IP addresses from the beginning of the hacking attempts. Two of them originated in Miami.

Most people would have acted with dispatch to locate who was behind the local IP attempts. Not prosecutors. They appeared to have misplaced the evidence. It was only after Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei brought the domestic IP addresses to the attention of the state attorney’s office that a probe was initiated. Was that sloppy bookkeeping? You bet.

Ed Griffith, the state attorney’s office spokesman, was at a loss to explain what happened, but placed blame on the county for not providing the crucial evidence in a timely manner. Nevertheless, he said an active investigation is underway and companies that control local hotspots have been subpoenaed.

This debacle would not have been so depressing were it not for the fact that absentee ballot fraud is so common in Miami. The grand jury that was meeting was impaneled because of other absentee ballot fraud allegations that had rocked the Aug. 14 vote.

The July hacking attempt was blocked and elections officials said that the number of ballots — if the requests had gone undetected — would not have swayed the outcome. But that was only apparent after the election. Small comfort.

The grand jury made recommendations to help fix the system. They include a call for the elections department to use even stronger electronic safeguards to ward off potential fraud, such as a secure site with login and password similar to a financial institution. It also called on the Legislature to reinstate the requirement that an absentee ballot be signed in the presence of a witness.

That’s a key requirement.

“The Legislature wants to make it easy to absentee vote. Why isn’t the emphasis as well on the integrity of that vote?” Mr. Griffith said.

The grand jury’s recommendations are on point. It’s time for legislators to act. Clean elections should not be left solely to machines.

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