After 20 years, Florida Republicans look to ban ballot harvesting — again

But they’re leaving out one top recommendation by a 2012 grand jury.
Linda Bock, working with the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office, informs early voters of a mail ballot drop-off location outside of The Centre of Palm Harbor during early voting on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Palm Harbor.
Linda Bock, working with the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office, informs early voters of a mail ballot drop-off location outside of The Centre of Palm Harbor during early voting on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 22, 2021|Updated March 22, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — After a spate of voter fraud cases in Miami-Dade County, a statewide grand jury in 2012 recommended Florida lawmakers crack down on vote-by-mail fraud.

The jurors told the Republican-controlled Legislature to ban ballot harvesting, require Floridians to request a new vote-by-mail ballot each year and limit the amount of data candidates can get about voters.

But lawmakers weren’t interested. Now, after former President Donald Trump alleged widespread voter fraud that never happened, they are.

A House committee on Monday approved an elections overhaul bill that includes some of the recommendations from the grand jury nearly a decade ago. It would require people to re-request vote-by-mail ballots every election cycle instead of every two cycles and would restrict who can collect and turn in those completed ballots, limiting it to a family member or member of a household.

The bill is part of an elections overhaul package being pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. It comes two decades after Republican lawmakers and former Gov. Jeb Bush removed a ban on so-called ballot harvesting, the practice of another person turning in voters’ ballots. While proponents say this practice can help get out the vote, critics have pointed to high-profile incidents of fraud related to people canvassing neighborhoods and senior centers to collect, and sometimes manipulate, ballots.

“When you vote at the polls, there are plenty of safeguards,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, told lawmakers Monday. “But when we look at vote-by-mail ballots, there are almost no safeguards.”

The House bill doesn’t adopt some of the more extreme ideas proposed by some lawmakers this session. It doesn’t ban the use of ballot drop boxes, but does require that boxes be manned or monitored at all times. And while it shortens the amount of time for standing requests for mail ballots, it does not cancel existing requests.

The bill would make a slew of other administrative changes to how those votes are processed and has generated opposition from county elections supervisors. One requirement, that voters submit an ID when returning a vote-by-mail ballot at a drop box and sign affidavits if their ballot addresses don’t match their ID, would generate long lines, they warned.

Democrats said Republicans are only looking to change the laws because of Trump, not because there were any particular problems in Florida last year.

“I heard you say over and over today, ‘This was the smoothest election Florida’s had,’” said Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, a former deputy supervisor of elections. “I absolutely agree.”

They noted that the bill makes no mention of the latest incident of voter fraud. Just last week, a former state senator was arrested on felony charges on suspicion of offering an acquaintance $50,000 to run as an independent in Miami-Dade’s Senate District 37 race.

“Nothing included in the bill addresses that,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windemere. “We can’t say that we’re very concerned about preventing voter fraud.”

Florida has not seen the sort of widespread voter fraud alleged by Trump and his supporters, but the state does have a history of vote-by-mail fraud in smaller races.

The 1997 Miami mayor’s race was overturned after 55 people, including a Miami city commissioner and his chief of staff, were charged with voter fraud for manipulating mail-in ballots. Ballots were signed in dead people’s names and older voters were manipulated.

Between 2010 and 2015 alone, 20 people in Florida were charged with voter fraud relating to vote-by-mail ballots. In 2017, Palm Beach County investigators found that someone forged people’s signatures to generate requests for mail-in ballots, but no suspect was identified.

Ballot harvesting, with candidates or committees going door to door collecting people’s mail-in ballots, has been one of the common tactics in the cases. In Miami, campaigns or candidates used to regularly pay boleteros to collect ballots, and many were caught forging voters’ signatures over the decades.

In response to the 1997 case, the Legislature outlawed harvesting, limiting the number of ballots someone can carry. But in 2001, lawmakers and Bush quietly removed the restriction, allowing anyone, including candidates, to collect ballots as long as they weren’t being paid to do it.

Since then, there have been multiple calls to do away with the practice, including from the 2012 Miami-Dade statewide grand jury convened to eliminate fraud.

State lawmakers didn’t adopt any of the jurors’ recommendations at the time. Jeffrey Pankey, the grand jury’s foreperson, said he’s watched in frustration as lawmakers are suddenly outraged.

“It’s like, ‘Yes, hello, we told you about it 10 years ago,’” said Pankey, president of a Miami-based graphic design firm. “We gave you a bunch of ideas to do something about it, so do something.”

Ingoglia told the Times/Herald that lawmakers have been aware of the ballot harvesting issue for years. It’s still banned in Miami-Dade County under a county ordinance, a result of the 2012 grand jury recommendations.

“It’s an issue that’s been on our minds,” Ingoglia said. “I just think we’re finally at the point where we want to go back to it.”

The jurors’ recommendations also included requiring vote-by-mail ballots be requested every cycle, instead of every two cycles. Pankey said when somebody moved, a ballot might still be sent to their old address.

“It just leaves too many options out there for fraud to happen,” he said.

The jurors also said candidates and committees should not have access to data on when someone is sent a vote-by-mail ballot and when they return it. That “effectively paints a bulls-eye target on the back of every vulnerable absentee voter,” the grand jury report states, telling bad actors who to target to collect their ballots, and when.

“I don’t want people knowing when I’m voting or when I’m doing a mail ballot,” Pankey said. “That’s my business. that’s my election.”

Ingoglia said he understood that some people have used the data to target and manipulate voters. But by restricting access to it, candidates and campaigns would not be able to perform as effective get-out-the-vote efforts.

He said that voter groups rely on knowing who has a vote-by-mail ballot, and when they’ve turned it in, to know which doors to knock on or not.

“By shielding that information from public record, are we creating more harm than good?” Ingoglia said.

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