Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Ferreting out fraud

 

OUR OPINION: Miami-Dade beefs up absentee-ballot protections, but must remain vigilant

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

You can’t overstate the value of maintaining the integrity of the election process, but Miami-Dade County sure did balk at the price. Confident that it can catch fraudulent requests for absentee ballots submitted online, the Miami-Dade Elections Department has opted to toughen up its computer software.

In doing so, Miami-Dade rejected a grand-jury recommendation to make the website secure by requiring users to enter logins and passwords to request absentee ballots.

According to Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley, this method would have required an investment of about $843,000 to set up, followed by a recurring cost of $743,000 during major elections. At a time when Miami-Dade County is facing the ire of public workers seeking more pay, cutting back library hours and fending off animal lovers unhappy with the status of the Pets’ Trust proposal, there was, no doubt, little appetite to pony up major money for the login/password system. Beefing up the back end of the computer software won’t cost the county any money.

But now it’s up to the county to ensure that the real costs aren’t instead a corruptible — or corrupted — election process. There are dishonest dealers looking to beat the system, and the elections department has to stay two steps ahead.

Election 2012 was a scary eye-opener in Miami-Dade. Thousands of fraudulent online requests for absentee ballots were submitted online last year. To the Election Department’s credit, staffers caught them and alerted prosecutors. Most came from foreign IP addresses and could not be traced. However, the Miami Herald sussed out that about 500 requests were submitted from much closer to home — linked to aides to U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia.

An investigation continues. No one has been charged, but it definitely appears to have crossed the line. Under state law, only voters or their immediate family members can submit ballot requests.

The grand jury asserted that the login/passwords approach could introduce a higher catch rate. There’s a downside, too. Right now, absentee ballots can be requested up to a few days out from an election. If the county went with the login method, a PIN number would be mailed to each voter making the request.

No doubt, the county would have to put more time between granting the request and Election Day, cutting into the time people have to cast a ballot. And with mail service often iffy . . .

No matter the security method, the county can only crow about the fraudulent requests that have been caught — indeed, no small feat. But it’s impossible to determine what fraudulent requests slipped through.

Challenging absentee-ballot fraud has gotten a strong assist from Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and her task force of police officers from at least seven agencies and a phalanx of prosecutors.

State lawmakers, too, have a duty here, but they are shirking it. There’s no state law (only a Miami-Dade ordinance) regarding the collection of an absentee ballot. This makes it tougher to come down hard on the types of ballot brokers that have infiltrated Miami-Dade and seeped into other counties.

But the GOP-majority Legislature is loathe to cut into its political advantage, counting on, for instance, senior citizens among its supporters — voters most likely to use absentee ballots.

This is not the way to ensure fair and clean elections — something on which you just can’t put a price.

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