Florida law has failed to keep up with the growing popularity of mail-in voting, leaving candidates and campaigns free to manipulate voters — even to the point of helping them fill out their ballots, a Palm Beach Post investigation found.
Legislators haven’t helped. They’ve taken away valuable tools and ignored warnings to reform the absentee ballot system, which now accounts for nearly one of every three votes cast in Florida.
The laws and protections are so absurd that:
- Almost nothing would stop someone from requesting a vote-by-mail ballot for every voter in the county without their knowledge. Requesting someone else’s ballot is a felony, but it’s nearly impossible to prove. One Loxahatchee Groves candidate learned the hard way, after more than 100 requests were made from his opponent’s home computer.
A politician could sit at your kitchen table, fill out your ballot for you and sign it, and as long as the signature is similar enough to the one on file with the elections office, no one would know. And even if officials find the signature doesn’t match, the ballot simply would not count. Police rarely pursue cases involving mismatching signatures.
Republicans once pushed absentee voting as a way of assuring turnout among the faithful, but it’s caught on with Democrats, too. Some candidates now build their campaigns around generating votes by mail.
But the laws fail to rein in potential problems, well known since a judge threw out the results of a 1997 Miami mayoral race because of a massive effort to forge absentee ballots.
“You’re trying to do whatever you can to protect the voter and that voter’s ballot,” said David Leahy, Miami-Dade elections supervisor at the time. “It’s disturbing when you make the law so lenient that that doesn’t happen.”
Florida used to have two notable regulations on absentee voting:
- No person could turn in more than two ballots in an election cycle. That was law from 1998 until 2001, when now-Rep. Bill Posey, then a Republican state senator, filed an amendment killing it.
- Two witnesses were required to sign and provide their address on the voter’s ballot. In 1997, it was reduced to one witness, and in 2004, a bill sponsored by Republican state Sen. Paula Dockery killed it entirely.
Those requirements did not prevent fraud outright but had made it easier to catch.
Miami-Dade prosecutors in 1997 used witness signatures to find people who were signing ballots en masse; it resulted in charges against 55 people and a judge throwing out the results of the Miami mayor’s race.
That county adopted its own two-ballot possession rule after the Legislature dropped it, and it was useful when more than 150 ballots were found at a county commissioner’s office in 2012. That led to the arrest of the commissioner’s aide.
The former prosecutor who handled many of those cases was surprised to learn that possessing more than two ballots was no longer the law across the state.
“It’s an absolutely essential law. I have a hard time understanding what right somebody might have to collect ballots,” said Joseph Centorino, now executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. “Any time you let politically motivated campaign workers get control over people’s ballots, that’s an invitation to fraud.”
State law prohibits paid campaign workers from collecting more than two ballots. Candidates and unpaid workers can haul around as many as they like.
And parties and candidates on both sides take advantage of it. In the August Democratic primary, state House candidate Al Jacquet and Palm Beach County Commission candidate Mack Bernard went door to door and helped voters fill out their mail-in ballots, The Post found.
The candidates also offered to turn in the ballots to the elections office.
Can results be trusted?
Closing the gap in the law that allows candidates to collect ballots was recommended by a 2012 Miami-Dade grand jury, formed after yet another bout of absentee ballot fraud there.
The panel widely condemned the absentee voting system, questioning whether it could be trusted in close races.
“Can the public have confidence in the election results of those races? We are not certain they can,” the grand jury wrote.
They also recommended bringing back the witness signature requirement.
The Legislature did none of those things.
The grand jury’s foreman, Jeffrey Pankey, said he knew little about absentee voting before he was called to serve on the panel.
When he left, he felt the entire system should be scrapped, unless changes were made.
“I think absentee ballots should be completely voided unless you have a real reason to vote absentee,” he said recently.
‘No right to privacy’
Florida’s laws are so vague that experts don’t know how to interpret them.
The law instructs voters to fill out their vote-by-mail ballots in secret, for example, but no one seems to know what that means.
“You have no right to privacy with a mail ballot — it doesn’t exist,” said Ion Sancho, who recently retired after 28 years as the Leon County elections supervisor.
There’s also confusion over whether a supervisor of elections must honor every request for a vote-by-mail ballot, even if the ballots are considered suspicious. In Miami-Dade County, 2,500 “phantom” absentee ballot requests submitted in 2012 by a clandestine computer overseas were rejected by elections officials.
But in Palm Beach County, Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher said she had no choice but to honor suspicious requests. Her office received 300 requests for ballots in summer 2016 with signatures that did not match the ones on file. But since Bucher couldn’t find anything in the law saying she had to reject them, she sent those voters a ballot.
Tough to prosecute
Lax laws give prosecutors little opportunity to win a conviction.
“It’s not an easy thing to prove,” said Centorino, the former Miami-Dade prosecutor. “You don’t see very many convictions for voter fraud.”
In the string of Miami-Dade convictions in the 1990s, the state attorney’s office had collected wiretapped audio recordings, statements from voters and evidence of forged signatures.
Because the law doesn’t explicitly prohibit stepping into voters’ homes and helping them fill out a ballot, candidates can do so without fear of prosecution.
These cases “may not be unlawful per se, but it looks bad for a public office holder or candidate to indulge in these (practices),” said former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan.
Even in the case of filling out a ballot on behalf of a voter, while generally illegal, it’s difficult to collect evidence.
“How would that ever be uncovered?” said Marci Rex, an assistant state attorney who heads Palm Beach County’s public corruption unit. “Those would be the challenges of ever prosecuting a case like that.”
9-vote spread in Lox Groves
In Loxahatchee Groves, Keith Harris lost a town council race in March 2015 by nine votes. He collected evidence that suggested at least 12 votes counted in that election were cast by mail by people who hadn’t requested ballots themselves, court records show.
It’s a third-degree felony to request an absentee ballot on behalf of a voter who isn’t an immediate family member.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators traced the requests to a computer owned by opposing candidate Ryan Liang but used by his mother. They even had media reports in which Liang said his mother, Philomena Liu, made the requests and felt “really bad about it.”
But that wasn’t enough to prosecute, Assistant State Attorney Timothy Beckwith wrote to FDLE investigators, because they couldn’t pin down who used the computer and when.
“The state is unable to overcome Ms. Liu’s reasonable hypothesis of innocence, that someone other than her used the subject computer to order absentee ballots,” he wrote.
For Harris, it was a bitter outcome.
“I’ve been sitting here for the last 700 days just in anguish knowing what has occurred and wondering why it hasn’t been resolved,” Harris said. “It’s taken me my money and my time, while everyone moves on with their lives.”
State attorney’s role
A supervisor of elections does not have the power to decide whether a fraud case is prosecuted. Bucher said she can only pass on her suspicions.
“It is entirely up to the state attorney what they pursue, who they pursue and what their priorities are,” Sancho said.
Sometimes the pursuit of justice is tainted by personal relationships.
Sancho once caught wind of an operation aimed at tricking Leon County college students into signing a form that would change their party affiliation, he said.
An FDLE officer investigated and turned evidence over to the Leon state attorney, who declined to prosecute.
“He said, ‘I don’t have the budget to investigate thousands of fraudulent signatures.’ So he didn’t touch it,” Sancho said.
Leahy had a good relationship with his state attorney, and together they successfully investigated and convicted several people of absentee fraud.
Bucher, a former state House member, said she turned over evidence of suspicious activity during the 2016 primary campaign to State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s office. Aronberg, a former state senator, won’t say what he is investigating but so far has announced no charges.
But the laws are so vague, it’s unlikely any prosecutor would charge a candidate for entering the home of a voter and advising them how to vote.
“Nobody was thinking about these situations (when the law on absentees was crafted),” Nova Southeastern University Law Professor Robert Jarvis said. “That explains some of the gaps and some of the omissions in the law.”
But strengthening the requirements for mail-in voting runs the risk of making it so difficult that people who would use that option won’t cast a ballot at all, he said.
“The question is,” Jarvis said. “Are you willing to tolerate the mistakes and the fraud in order to increase participation?”
Staff writers Alexandra Seltzer and Justin Price and staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.