- Lawrence Mower Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Palm Beach County’s elections supervisor is changing the way the office handles absentee ballot request forms after allegations of voter fraud dominated last year’s primary election.
No longer will incomplete request forms be accepted, and voters who request absentee ballots on behalf of family members will have to provide their driver’s license number, Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher said.
The change is meant to prevent the kind of abuses that happened during the 2016 primary, when State Attorney’s Office investigators found 22 people whose signatures were forged on absentee ballot request forms.
Bucher also said she is increasing efforts to inform voters that they should not give their ballots to people who show up at their home.
Although investigators found clear-cut evidence of fraud, they couldn’t find a suspect, and they recently dropped the case.
Bucher was the first person to alert prosecutors to the fraud, telling them she suspected “certain political campaigns” were going door to door and manipulating voters, according to a state attorney’s memo.
The campaigns weren’t specifically named in the memo. State Sen. Bobby Powell’s legislative aide was named a “person of interest” after being seen on video dropping off bundles of ballot request forms, but neither he nor the aide was interviewed.
Last week, Powell’s opponent in the race, Michael Steinger, called for the FBI to investigate. The bureau has yet to respond.
Bucher, who served eight years in the state House as a Democrat, on Wednesday declined to comment on the investigation, but said that after the August election, she scoured the state’s confusing election laws to look for ways to catch potential fraud.
She found that state law, strangely, doesn’t say that vote-by-mail request forms have to be signed, but that they have to be filled out completely. And when requesting ballots for family members, the forms have to state who’s requesting the ballot, the person’s relationship to the voter and include the person’s driver’s license number.
If the forms aren’t complete, a letter will go out to the voter informing them that their request was not fulfilled. Bucher couldn’t say how many voter requests would have been affected in the past.
Elections workers won’t have to create a new vote-by-mail request form, Bucher said.
“It’s going to be the same form,” she said. “You just have to follow the rules.”
The change might have affected the results in last year’s Democratic primary, when Powell, County Commissioner Mack Bernard and state Rep. Al Jacquet teamed up to generate heavy turnout in absentee votes.
A March Palm Beach Post investigation found that Bernard and Jacquet’s tactics included going door to door and helping voters request absentee ballots for themselves and for family members who weren’t home.
The Post spoke to a dozen voters who didn’t know why they were sent ballots. Some suspected that their family members had unwittingly signed them up.
Prosecutors also found people who were unwittingly signed up for ballots by family members.
And one of the 22 voters was signed up by a fictional sibling — a “Mark Robinson.” But the voter told detectives that he was not related to anyone by that name and had no siblings in West Palm Beach.
Once voters requested ballots, Bernard and Jacquet, like most candidates, used elections records to find out when the elections office mailed the ballots.
Then Bernard and Jacquet or their campaign staffs would show up at voters’ homes soon after to make sure they voted. The Post found occasions when they stepped into voters’ homes, helped them fill out ballots and collected them.
Collecting ballots is a felony, according to the state attorney’s memo.
Bucher said she started to increase voter outreach before the November election, particularly in Haitian-dominated neighborhoods, and will continue to do so. Bernard and Jacquet are of Haitian descent and dominated the absentee vote in those precincts, collecting nine out of every 10 absentee ballots cast in the August race in some precincts.
“We’ll continue to be extremely diligent,” Bucher said. “It was always an area that was of concern. It wasn’t new to us.”