In hindsight, Gov. Rick Scott's flawed attempt to purge Florida's voter rolls of noncitizens last fall almost appears quaint. The real threat to the integrity of elections is in absentee ballots. Exhibit A: South Florida, where hackers in three primary elections requested absentee ballots for 2,552 voters. Elections officials blocked the scammers, the ballots were not sent and prosecutors are investigating. But it is a cautionary tale that has so far been largely unaddressed in Tallahassee. The House elections bill passed last week makes it easier for voters to cure mistakes in submitting absentee ballots but is silent on curtailing absentee ballot fraud.
As the Miami Herald recently reported, Miami-Dade County elections officials were almost immediately suspicious in July of a flurry of online requests for absentee ballots for the primary election. They called several of the voters whose names were on the requests and confirmed the requests were fraudulent. Elections staff blocked the offending IP addresses from submitting more forms. But the hackers adapted, and over more than two weeks they submitted thousands more that were subsequently traced to just 15 IP addresses — most of them overseas.
No absentee ballots were ever mailed, and it remains a mystery who was responsible. All the winners in the 2012 primary in the three races, one Democratic congressional primary and two Republican legislative primaries, won by large margins. But the sophistication — the hackers only targeted infrequent voters who had not requested an absentee ballot — suggests a tie to a candidate's campaign. Under state law only candidates, political committees and political parties have access to absentee ballot request information before the election.
Prosecutors have reopened their investigation following the Herald report and a realization that they were not aware of all the evidence due to miscommunication with election officials. While the security at the elections office worked, what about the next hacker who may be more sophisticated? A grand jury suggested requiring voters to use a password to request an absentee ballot, not unlike the passwords required by banks, libraries and others.
That is not under consideration in Tallahassee. Nor is tightening up the process by which an absentee ballot can be redirected to an address other than the voter's, another avenue for fraud that surfaced during the election. One reform that has surfaced, in SB 600 by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, would require all absentee ballots to include the signature of a witness on the outside of the envelope before it is mailed to elections supervisors for counting. But the benefit of that additional step is unclear. Supervisors contend there would be limited means to verify the witness signature.
The Miami-Dade hacking attempt only became public because of a grand jury investigation stemming from another absentee ballot scandal in Miami-Dade in which two so-called boleteros, or ballot brokers, were arrested before the primary and charged with voter fraud. There's mounting evidence that it's Florida's mail ballots — not its Election Day polls — that are most susceptible to fraud.