Miami-Dade grand jury: Absentee voting fraud clouds confidence in tight election results

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.

Most recommendations, however, focused on absentee voting. Among them:

• Require that someone at least 18 years old witness an absentee voter fill out and sign his or her ballot.

• Require that people who provide absentee voters with assistance fill out declarations similar to the ones required from people who help voters at the polls.

• Require voters to request a ballot for each election, instead of allowing standing requests.

• Make it a third-degree state felony for anyone to possess more than two ballots, other than those belonging to the voter and an immediate family member, as Miami-Dade County code already does.• Protect information on voters who have requested absentee ballots from political parties, candidates and political committees.

• Bring more ALFs and nursing homes into the county’s “Supervised Voting Program,” which sends elections staff to group homes so residents can vote without having to go to the polls.

• Require user logins and passwords to make online ballot requests and update voter information, to limit fraudulent submissions.

• Contact voters whose ballot envelopes are unsigned, or whose ballot signature does not match the signature on file, once the ballot is received, giving voters until the close of the polls on Election Day to resolve the issue.

The focus on ALFs is particularly important in Miami-Dade, which has long documented questionable voting practices at group homes. Deisy Cabrera, one of the two suspected Hialeah ballot brokers, is accused of filling out the ballot of an unresponsive 81-year-old woman at a Miami Springs nursing home.

A county ethics commission investigation last year found troubling absentee-ballot practices at a North Miami Beach ALF where at least three residents encountered problems voting by mail. And as far back as 1976, local elections officials threw out suspicious absentee ballots cast in Miami nursing homes.

“Those places are always a problem during campaign season, and it’s almost impossible to police them,” said Ethics Commission Director Joe Centorino, a former assistant state attorney who prosecuted several vote-fraud cases related to the 1997 Miami mayoral election. “People know that they can get away with it.”

Ballot brokers Cabrera and Sergio Robaina, who were charged separately, have pleaded not guilty to charges of voter fraud and violating the county ordinance that prohibits the possession of multiple ballots.

County commissioners already adopted one of the grand jury recommendations — prepaying for ballot return envelopes — in September. That change is key to preventing fraud, said David Custin, a local political consultant.

But Custin strongly opposed reinstating ballot witnesses. “You’re basically creating a gatekeeper system where the administrator or staff [in ALFs], you’re empowering them, requiring them, to be witnesses,” he said.

Another grand-jury recommendation that could deter fraud, he said, is the one that would make it more difficult to request absentee ballots online. Such tighter controls could have prevented the illicit phantom computer requests made before the primary, which investigators traced to Internet Protocol addresses — some overseas — whose origins were purposely obscured.

A criminal investigation concluded without charges, after the mastermind of the scheme could not be identified, the report says.

The grand jury’s report now heads to county leaders and state lawmakers, including one at the helm of legislative reforms following the tainted Miami mayoral election.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, now chairs the Ethics and Elections Committee. He said Thursday that some of the grand jury recommendations made sense, and called reinstating the witness requirement “an excellent idea.”

All told, considering the potential for fraud, Latvala said, “I would much rather encourage more people to vote early than to use mail-in ballots.”

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