February 23, 2013

Phantom ballots, a mystery hacker and a grand jury: Miami-Dade's electoral whodunit

The first phantom absentee ballot request hit the Miami-Dade elections website at 9:11 p.m. Saturday, July 7.

The next one came at 9:14. Then 9:17. 9:22. 9:24. 9:25.

Within 2½ weeks, 2,552 online requests arrived from voters who had not applied for absentee ballots. They streamed in much too quickly for real people to be filling them out. They originated from only a handful of Internet Protocol addresses. And they were not random.

It had all the appearances of a political dirty trick, a high-tech effort by an unknown hacker to sway three key Aug. 14 primary elections, a Miami Herald investigation has found.

The plot failed. The elections department’s software flagged the requests as suspicious. The ballots weren’t sent out.

But who was behind it? And next time, would a more skilled hacker be able to rig an election?

Six months and a grand-jury probe later, there still are few answers about the phantom requests, which targeted Democratic voters in a congressional district and Republican voters in two Florida House districts.

The foreman of that grand jury, whose report made public the existence of the phantom requests, said jurors were eager to learn if a candidate or political consultant had succeeded in manipulating the voting system. But they didn’t get any answers.

“We were like, ‘Why didn’t anyone do something about it?’ ” foreman Jeffrey Pankey said.

Read the story here. View a map of the phantom requests here.

February 22, 2013

Judge: Miami-Dade has power to enact absentee-ballot law

In its effort to crack down on voter fraud, Miami-Dade County has the authority to limit how many absentee ballots a voter can possess, a judge ruled Friday.

The ruling came in the case of Sergio “El Tio” Robaina, whose lawyers had challenged a county ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor to collect multiple absentee ballots.

Prosecutors say Robaina, 74, illegally collected absentee ballots and filled out two against the wishes of two voters, one of them a woman with dementia. He faces two felony counts of voter fraud, and two misdemeanor counts of illegally possessing absentee ballots.

The Miami-Dade County Commission, worried about the perception of election fraud, passed the ordinance two years ago. A person may turn in only two absentee ballots in addition to their own: one belonging to an immediate family member and another belonging to a voter who has signed a sworn statement designating that person as responsible.

Friday’s order by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch was his second ruling against Robaina.

February 13, 2013

Liberal group: Fox radio 'mocked' wait of 102-year-old North Miami voter featured at State of the Union

From the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America:

After glossing over state Republicans' role in exacerbating long lines at the ballot box, three Fox hosts mocked the hours-long wait and multiple trips a 102-year-old woman endured in order to cast her vote in 2012.

On Fox News Radio's Kilmeade & Friends, host Brian Kilmeade and Fox's Martha MacCallum and Bill Hemmer laughed off the difficulties 102-year-old Desiline Victor endured in order to vote in the 2012 election. Victor, who was invited to the State of the Union address and whom President Obama applauded for enduring a long wait to vote, had to make two trips to the polls and wait in line for over three hours before she was able to cast her ballot. Discussing Victor, MacCallum wondered, "What's the big deal?" and said, "This is such a non-issue. Ridiculous." Hemmer added that at the State of the Union, "They held her up as a victim. What was she a victim of?"

Full post, including audio, here. Read The Miami Herald story about Desiline Victor here.

January 24, 2013

Orlando Sentinel: 200,000+ Floridians discouraged from voting by long lines, hassles

Interesting report from the Orlando Sentinel, which puts a number (a rough estimate to be sure) on the number of Floridians who didn't vote because of long lines and Election Day hassles: 200,000 --and perhaps higher.

Says the Sentinel:

Analyzing data compiled by the Orlando Sentinel, Ohio State University professor Theodore Allen estimated last week that at least 201,000 voters likely gave up in frustration on Nov. 6, based on research Allen has been doing on voter behavior.

His preliminary conclusion was based on the Sentinel's analysis of voter patterns and precinct-closing times in Florida's 25 largest counties, home to 86 percent of the state's 11.9 million registered voters.

"My gut is telling me that the real number [of voters] deterred is likely higher," Allen said. "You make people wait longer, they are less likely to vote."

Around the state, nearly 2 million registered voters live in precincts that stayed open at least 90 minutes past the scheduled 7 p.m. closing time, according to Sentinel analysis of voting data obtained from county elections supervisors. Of those, 561,000 voters live in precincts that stayed open three extra hours or longer.

While an estimate, the number isn't surprising. And, folks should note, these weren't all Obama voters who were turned away. The week after the election, here's my column on the anecdotal evidence of voter suppression:

Continue reading "Orlando Sentinel: 200,000+ Floridians discouraged from voting by long lines, hassles" »

January 17, 2013

Ethics gets another dose of reform, this time from Fasano

Hoping the third time is the charm, Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has filed an ethics bill similar to ones he filed as a state senator in 2011 and last year.

Although Fasano’s two previous attempts failed – rather quickly -- the appetite for ethics reform is seemingly insatiable this year among Republicans. Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have branded ethics reform as the cause celebre of this year’s session that start in March.

“I’m very optimistic, the leadership, the tone from both leaders gives us hope that if not our legislation, something similar to our legislation will deal with these issues,” Fasano said Thursday.

Continue reading "Ethics gets another dose of reform, this time from Fasano" »

Gov. Rick Scott calls for up to 14 early-voting days, more sites

Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday formally endorsed the three major changes to election procedures recommended by state election supervisors, days after a team of supervisors testified before legislative committees.

In a statement issued after a meeting with Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Scott specifically endorsed these changes:

* Increasing the number of early voting days from eight to a maximum of 14, from six to 12 hours each day, and including the Sunday before Election Day at the election supervisor's option.

* Expanding the locations for early voting beyond the existing law, which is limited to elections offices, city halls and libraries.

* Reducing the length of the ballot, including descriptions of constitutional amendments.

All three proposals require legislative approval. Scott did not specifically call for a change in state law to prevent the Legislature from requiring that the full text of ballot questions be presented to voters.

Scott issued this statement: "Our ultimate goal must be to restore Floridians' confidence in our election system ... We need more early voting days, which should include an option of the Sunday before Election Day, and we need more early voting locations."

Scott's statement comes in the wake of a chaotic Florida election when voters waited up to seven hours to cast ballots, and national news organizations declared President Barack Obama the winner before the state's final results were posted.  

--STEVE BOUSQUET

January 15, 2013

House panel gets an earful on how to fix 2012 voting problems

Ten Florida election supervisors testified before a House subcommittee Tuesday and largely repeated themes they emphasized to a Senate panel Monday. They want shorter ballots, a return to a maximum of 14 days of early voting and more flexibility in picking early voting sites.

The supervisors testified before the House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton. They also said they want a return to early voting on the Sunday right before an election (which was eliminated when the Legislature rewrote the election code in 2011).

But a recurring theme was the unprecedented length of the 2012 ballot, with 11 proposed constitutional amendments, several of them published in full on orders of lawmakers. "They (voters) just said, 'This ballot is too long,'" said Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford. "It's written in language that a lawyer can't understand."

Lee County's Sharon Harrington said the Legislature has imposed too many restrictions on early voting sites. Miami-Dade's Penelope Townsley stressed the need for more early voting sites, a return to up to 14 days of early voting and limiting all ballot questions to a 75-word summary, the same as citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives.

Seminole County's Mike Ertel struck an upbeat tone, noting that some states don't allow early voting: "Don't let your friends in other states try to shame you into thinking that you haven't done enough for the voters."

One member of the House committee is Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, sponsor of the 2011 law that lawmakers are now trying to fix. "You don't have to restore my confidence. It's already there," Baxley said during the five-hour hearing.

-- Steve Bousquet

January 14, 2013

Florida election system to get tweaked?

TALLAHASSEE — More than two months after Florida's election system drew national scorn for its long lines and tardy vote tabulation, state lawmakers said Monday they supported reforms in hopes to avoid a repeat performance.

During five hours of Senate hearings, lawmakers voiced measured support for a series of proposed changes, including expanding the number of early voting days from eight to up to 14 days, giving local elections offices more flexibility in choosing early polling sites and limiting the length of ballot amendment summaries to 75 words.

The recommendations were made by Florida election supervisors, who blamed long lines in some of the bigger counties on a ballot overstuffed with 11 proposed amendments that were passed by state lawmakers. Ten supervisors, including Penelope Townsley of Miami-Dade and Susan Bucher of Palm Beach, urged lawmakers to make the changes.

Although senators spent much of the hearing avoiding a discussion of the role they played in reducing the number of early voting days and passing the verbose amendments, they did acknowledge they were open to change.

"The Senate has gotten the message on the length of the ballot," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. "I was probably part of the problem as far as the language that appears on the ballot. If 75 words is the way to go, we should do that. And going from eight to 14 days of early voting? I don't have a problem with that."

Continue reading "Florida election system to get tweaked?" »

January 12, 2013

Three out of four $$ this election cycle went to no-limits committee accounts

Florida’s sputtering economy did not stop interest groups and donors from spending $306 million this election cycle on state political campaigns, according to final election year tallies released Friday.

The number is lower than the $550 million reported in the 2010 election cycle and does not include the massive amount of federal cash spent in the presidential race. But it points to a new trend: more dollars are going to campaign committees rather than individual candidates.

Three out of every four dollars were unlimited checks to political committees, while the rest went into the campaign accounts of individuals, which are capped at $500 a check.

The shift is a sign that Florida’s $500 limit is outdated and dysfunctional — and ripe for reform, said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, which did the analysis of the campaign finance data released by the Florida Division of Elections.

“Candidate accounts have become nearly irrelevant,’’ said Krassner. The current system allows corporations to write unlimited checks to political committees with loose affiliations to candidates but require them to give no more than $1000 to individual candidates for both the primary and general election. The result is, he said, “the public cannot easy follow the money.’’

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has called for an overhaul of the state’s campaign finance reforms said Friday the numbers prove his point that the political committees – known as Committees of Continuous Existence, or CCEs – have gotten out of hand. Story here.

Top accounts:

Continue reading "Three out of four $$ this election cycle went to no-limits committee accounts" »

January 10, 2013

MTV in the Clear on Voting Fraud

TALLAHASSEE -- If there were any questions that those running MTV's Rock the Vote were perpetuating fraud in registering voters, they were answered Thursday.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that it had found no evidence of criminal activity from the Rock the Vote website. It had been alerted to the potential of fraud on Oct. 8 by the Florida Department of State's Division of Elections.

But upon interviewing those involved in 20 registration cases the state had flagged as suspicious, the FDLE determined that the information on the Rock the Vote web site was accurate and the people shown as registering on it had initiated the activity.

More prominent cases of potential fraud await, however. Still outstanding, FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger says, are five separate cases against Strategic Allied Consulting, the private firm based in Arizona that had been hired by the Republican Party of Florida. Also open is the case of the mysterious letters with a Seattle, Wash. post mark that were sent to voters telling them that their registration status was in doubt.

Continue reading "MTV in the Clear on Voting Fraud" »