From the editor: A reporter’s pursuit of a bid to rig votes

The item that caught Patricia Mazzei’s eye was only a few paragraphs in a 49-page grand jury report released in December.

The grand jury, empanelled by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office in the wake of absentee ballot irregularities during the August primary election, revealed a thwarted attempt by a clandestine computer program to request 2,500 absentee ballots during the August primary.

A vendor for the county’s elections department flagged the requests, which were coming in too quickly to be the work of humans. They also were coming from the same Internet Protocol addresses, many leading back to the United Kingdom and India.

The Miami-Dade elections department referred the matter to the state attorney’s office for investigation.

“It was just a nugget,” said Mazzei, who covers county hall and legislative politics. “I wanted to find out more. How could someone do this?”

That initial inquiry is the basis for Sunday’s front page story, in which Mazzei — with the help of a private investigator — dissects the bold attempt to influence the outcome of one congressional race and two Florida House districts.

Mazzei was able to trace at least two of the bulk requests to an IP address in Miami even after a report by the state attorney’s office concluded all of the requests traced back to disguised overseas addresses.

She began her reporting at the Miami-Dade elections department, requesting all of the documentation provided to the state attorney’s office. One document was a map where the elections department had plotted the addresses of all of the absentee ballots.

She instantly saw a pattern from her campaign coverage: “I knew the districts.” The majority of the requests were for Democrats in Congressional District 26 and for Republicans in hotly contested Florida House districts 103 and 112.

Trying to determine where the requests for the absentee ballots came from, Mazzei sought the help of a private investigator. Two of the attempts were made from a Miami IP address. Had they been more sophisticated, the requests may have gone undetected.

“Somebody made a deliberate and illegal effort to tamper with our electoral process,” said Gail Epstein, the urban affairs editor who oversees our local government coverage. “That should give pause to candidates and prosecutors alike.”