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Amid fraud concerns, Florida absentee voting shrouded in secrecy

TALLAHASSEE — If you vote early in an election in Florida, it's there for the world to see: The Legislature requires an online listing of everyone who voted early and when and where they voted.

But if you vote by mail and request an absentee ballot, it's a closely held secret, available to a few. The Legislature mandated that, too.

As more people vote by mail, including one of every three people who voted in the Aug. 14 primary, candidates must spend more time and money seeking to influence those voters before they fill out their ballots.

The practice of "chasing" absentee voters with direct mail and phone calls is a key strategic component of any effective campaign.

"They've had to adapt their campaigns to those voters," says Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark.

But Clark and other county elections officials can give absentee ballot requests only to candidates with opposition, political parties, political committees and committees of continuous existence, known as CCEs, which are mostly controlled by trade groups, unions or legislators. The information is off limits to the public.

Yet, as it grows in popularity in Florida, absentee voting is more prone to fraud and other problems as ballots pass through many pairs of hands:

• In Miami-Dade, a police investigation has resulted in the arrests of two ballot brokers in Hialeah, both accused of filling out ballots for others.

• In Madison, east of Tallahassee, nine people, including a county elections supervisor and School Board member, are charged with voter fraud stemming from absentee ballot voting in a 2010 election. Both are suspended from office pending the outcome of the "Madison Nine" case.

• In Tallahassee, a judge last week upheld a canvassing board's rejection of 40 absentee ballots in a tight Palm Beach County state Senate race because none of the voters' signatures on absentee ballot paperwork matched those on file. Some Haitian-American voters' ballots were rejected because their printed names did not resemble their cursive signatures.

Historically, voting by mail has been more popular among Republican voters while Democrats have favored early voting since it began in 2004.

Many election supervisors actively promote absentee voting as a convenience to voters, especially in an election like the one in November, with a lengthy ballot and expected lines at the polls.

Everyone who voted early in past elections is listed online on a state website (dos.state.fl.us) under the categories of elections and statistics. The Republican Legislature mandated that in 2006.

After an election ends, every voter's method of voting is a matter of public record.

For decades in Florida, voters needed a reason to request an absentee ballot, such as not being home on Election Day. But no more.

"No excuse" absentee voting or "convenience" voting was one of the changes proposed by a bipartisan task force and embraced by former Gov. Jeb Bush after the 2000 presidential recount in Florida, which prompted historic scrutiny of election procedures in Florida.

But the Legislature left intact a provision that shields absentee ballot requests from the public, to safeguard the privacy of traveling voters.

Pinellas elections chief Clark said voters would be concerned that anyone could learn that they requested an absentee ballot, especially if they asked that it be sent to a different address, like a vacation home.

"That could be an indication that they were not at home," Clark said. "Their homes could be vulnerable."

In Citrus County, a citizen is challenging the secrecy provision in court.

Robert Schweickert Jr. of Inverness last month asked Citrus Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill for email addresses of all voters who requested absentee ballots (a voter seeking an absentee ballot in Citrus must provide an email address).

Gill refused to provide the information, and Gov. Rick Scott's administration supported her stand with an advisory legal opinion noting that the law allows elections officials to withhold release of "such other information he or she may deem necessary" to process a request for an absentee ballot.

The state Division of Elections told Gill: "Because state statutes do not prescribe uniform statewide requirements for absentee ballot requests, you may establish your own requirements."

Schweickert, who has filed several lawsuits alleging Sunshine Law violations in Citrus County, says the information should be public.

"If a political candidate can get this information, I don't see why a citizen can't get it," he said.

But with last month's Miami-Dade election clouded by allegations of absentee ballot fraud, county commissioners recently passed a resolution urging legislators to keep secret the names of voters requesting absentee ballots — even from candidates.

The proposal came from Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, who lost a bid for county mayor last month and has sued to challenge the results, citing absentee-ballot fraud in Hialeah.

If absentee ballot requests remain secret, he said, campaigns can't hire brokers to collect absentee ballots because they won't know who requested them.

"You won't have anybody knocking on your door, because they won't know you got an absentee ballot," Martinez said in July.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei and Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Voting by mail

Absentee or mail voting in recent Florida general elections:

YearAbsentees% of all votes
20101,241,85623%
20081,850,50222%
2006750,76215%
20041,352,44718%

Source: Florida Division of Elections

Amid fraud concerns, Florida absentee voting shrouded in secrecy 09/23/12 [Last modified: Sunday, September 23, 2012 9:03pm]
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