Miami-Dade County

January 16, 2014

Miami-Dade mayor overturns elections supervisor, will keep key absentee ballot information public

Following a request from County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, Internet Protocol addresses for absentee-ballot requests will no longer be kept secret.

Miami-Dade County will no longer block the public from obtaining key information that has helped detect attempted voting fraud.

Overturning a decision by his appointed elections supervisor, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Thursday that Internet Protocol addresses for absentee-ballot requests submitted online are public record.

Gimenez explained his position in a memo to Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who had asked the mayor to use his executive authority to make the IP addresses available. Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley had said she would keep them secret.

Gimenez and Townsley both said Thursday they had spoken earlier and agreed to the policy change.

“After reviewing the policies and procedures, it is clear that the collection of IP addresses is a critical and important protocol in place to detect fraud; however, it is incidental but it is not ‘necessary’ to process an Absentee Ballot,” Gimenez wrote.

State statute allows elections supervisors to exempt from disclosure to the general public — but not to political candidates, committees or parties — any absentee-ballot information deemed “necessary.”

Townsley had said IP addresses fell under that designation. She sought an opinion from the Florida division of elections, which said in November that it was up to each county’s elections department to make that determination.

After Townsley said last month that she intended to keep IP addresses private, the Miami Herald wrote an article about the decision, noting that a Herald investigation last year used IP addresses to uncover that a local fraudster had attempted to unlawfully submit absentee-ballot requests online in bulk.

The Herald report led to a state investigation that resulted in the arrest of Miami Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia’s former chief of staff. It also prompted prosecutors to be on the lookout for copycats, which led to two more investigations.

One effectively ended the Miami mayoral campaign of City Commissioner Francis Suarez, though he was not accused of wrongdoing.

His father, the county commissioner, took steps keep IP addresses public after the Herald’s December article ran. He consulted with the county attorney’s office, which told him the mayor could direct the elections supervisor to set a different policy.

And he wrote Gimenez on Jan. 6, citing media requests for the information and asking the mayor to take action.

“Any IP address that is used to request multiple absentee ballots is information that should be made available to media and the general public, both in the interests of transparency and of electoral integrity,” Xavier Suarez wrote.

Gimenez agreed, noting that Townsley has “instituted additional security measures to insure that all incoming absentee ballot requests are made in accordance with Florida Law,” including capturing IP address information.

In an interview, Suarez said he was happy with the resolution and with knowing that reporters and the public could keep digging.

“To impede that is to really go counter to what we’re all trying to accomplish, which is good government,” Suarez said.

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