Florida elections opinion could make uncovering fraud more difficult

12/21/2013 1:57 PM

12/21/2013 10:43 PM

Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s division of elections has issued an opinion that could make it tougher to uncover elections fraud.

And in Miami-Dade County, the state’s hotbed of absentee shenanigans, the elections chief who sought the opinion is eager to follow suit.

In the Nov. 18 opinion, state Division of Elections Director Maria I. Matthews wrote that county elections supervisors may shield from the public Internet Protocol addresses identifying the origin of absentee-ballot requests.

Penelope Townsley, the Miami-Dade elections supervisor, plans to keep IP addresses secret.

Had that policy been in place earlier this year, the Miami Herald would not have been able to conduct an investigation that led to the incarceration of Miami Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia’s former chief of staff.

Matthews wrote that if elections supervisors deem IP addresses to be information “necessary” to keeping absentee-ballot records, as Miami-Dade has in recent months, then the addresses are exempt from public disclosure — with a glaring exception.

Political parties, committees, candidates and their campaigns — the very people who have engaged in fraud — will still be able to obtain the information.

So will elections administrators, canvassing board members and voters seeking records of their own ballots. But not the public.

Brittany Lesser, a spokeswoman for the division of elections, indicated in a statement Friday that each county has wiggle room to choose what information to disclose — essentially leaving the final decision to Miami-Dade.

“Locally elected Supervisors of Elections should be provided the flexibility needed to best crack down on fraud, while managing elections within their own communities,” Lesser said.

Asked why his administration would issue an opinion contrary to the governor’s stated goal to crack down on voting fraud, a Scott spokesman directed a reporter to the division of elections.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee watchdog group backed by many of the state’s newspapers, criticized the public records exemption cited by the division of elections as too broad.

“What they’re doing is basically deciding on an ad hoc basis what will and will not be exempt,” she said. “What if they deem that we need to keep the name of the voter exempt?”

Earlier this year, the Foundation fought a measure approved by the Legislature closing off public access to voters’ email addresses. The governor vetoed the legislation.

Last month’s elections opinion was in response to a question by Townsley, the Miami-Dade elections supervisor whose office had complied with public records requests seeking IP addresses before the Herald published its investigation in February.

The next time the newspaper asked for IP addresses, following the resignation of Congressman Garcia’s chief of staff in late May, the elections department denied the request.

A department spokeswoman said at the time that Miami-Dade had determined that IP addresses could be kept confidential. The department then asked for a formal opinion to back it up.

In a statement Saturday, Townsley said keeping IP addresses secret is part of Miami-Dade’s “enhanced” procedures to verify the legitimacy of online forms.

“Because the integrity of on-line absentee ballot request submissions has become an issue, as part of our enhanced procedures, IP addresses, along with other personal data, are collected and analyzed to ensure that only those requests determined to not be suspicious are processed,” she said.

Townsley is the only elections supervisor in Florida who is not chosen by voters. She works for County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

The department said it will continue to send fishy ballot requests to the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. But prosecutors initially overlooked the requests last year before the Herald’s reporting.

Since then, prosecutors have investigated two other South Florida political campaigns for submitting absentee-ballot requests online in bulk.

In August, two aides for Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez were charged with misdemeanors and sentenced to probation. Suarez then dropped out of the city mayoral race.

Last month, investigators raided the business of North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau searching for evidence. Tondreau, who was elected in June, has denied wrongdoing. No one has been charged.

The Herald report earlier this year also found that fraudsters filed ballot requests in 2012 for Republican voters in two Florida House of Representatives districts. But those requests were masked by foreign IP addresses that prosecutors insisted they could not trace.

However, they did track the requests that originated from Joe Garcia’s campaign.

His former chief of staff and longtime political advisor, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, is serving a 90-day jail sentence at Miami’s Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center for directing the campaign to submit some 1,800 fraudulent absentee-ballot requests online last year.

The Herald linked hundreds of those requests to two Miami-area IP addresses, prompting the state attorney’s office to relaunch a criminal investigation. Prosecutors tied the addresses to two Joe Garcia campaign staffers, John Estes and Giancarlo Sopo, whose cases are pending.

The staffers' family members filed the requests on behalf of unsuspecting Democratic voters in an attempt to manipulate the election by having ballots sent to people the campaign could target with phone calls, mailed fliers and in-person visits.

The elections department flagged the requests as phony, and none of the ballots were sent.

Florida elections law requires voters or their immediate family members to request ballots for themselves.

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