Manatee learns from Miami-Dade's phantom ballot scandal

rdymond@bradenton.comJuly 22, 2013 

MANATEE -- The cities of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach will have city municipality election Nov. 5 where voters will choose city commissioners, city council members and a mayor.

A new system of checks in the Manatee County Office of Elections will be used to guard against absentee ballot fraud. The new system, which involves some software and coding for the ballots, has evolved over the last few months after a scandal involving phantom absentee ballots in Miami-Dade, said Michael Bennett, supervisor of Manatee's Office of Elections.

Bennett traveled to Orlando last week to meet with other Florida election office supervisors who were addressed by Miami-Dade officials.

"Miami-Dade officials went over what exactly had happened to them and how they caught it," Bennett said. "They walked us through it so we would all be on the same page going forward."

In Miami-Dade, hackers submitted thousands of phony ballot requests online at the Miami-Dade Elections Department, according to a Miami Herald investigation.

More than 2,500 such requests were flagged by the Miami-Dade Elections Department after they were found to have originated from only a handful of Internet Protocol addresses.

An investigation by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office traced some phony IP addresses to Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami. Garcia fired his former chief of staff after he admitted to coordinating the submission of nearly 500 fraudulent ballot requests.

In a separate investigation in June, prosecutors searched the home of a campaign aide to Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez for submitting 20 ballot requests for voters.

State law requires voters or their family members to submit ballot requests themselves. Suarez is running for city mayor

In December, a grand jury convened by State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle to examine problems with voting by mail recommended bolstering online security.

Manatee County acted immediately on Rundle's "bolster online security" suggestion, Bennett said.

"What we did in Manatee County following the situation in Miami-Dade is that we started to verify the Internet Protocol addresses from our online ballot requests to make sure they were not duplicated," Bennett said. "Also, in Manatee, each ballot is coded. We now have a system in place to help us make sure the person who requested the ballot is the person who voted with it."

The challenge for Bennett and other election supervisors is more and more people avoid crowded polls by voting early by mail after requesting a ballot online. In Manatee County, 20 percent of voters are submitted by mail, Bennett said.

"We are also working on a software program that will flag us if we get more than three requests from the same IP address," Bennett said. "We don't want to put out the exact details of our software program because we want to keep it secure."

The new software should be in place by Nov. 5, but Bennett's staff was already on high alert regarding absentee ballots during the June 18 countywide special referendum after the Miami-Dade situation.

The staff red-flagged six ballots June 18, but all were traced to common errors, Bennett said.

"What happened here in Manatee on June 18 is that Joe Doe requested a ballot but John Doe's wife voted with it," Bennett said. "We have been safeguards in place where we can tell pretty quick if something does not match up."

It would be hard for a phantom ballot hacker to strike Manatee now, said Sharon Stief, chief deputy for the Manatee County Office of Elections.

"The way we have been alerted, there would be a lot of red flags that would come up," Stief said.

In November, three city commissioners are up for election in Anna Maria, three city commissioners in Holmes Beach and Ward 1 and 3 city council seats are open in Bradenton Beach. Also Bradenton Beach Mayor John Shaughnessy is up for re-election.

The town of Longboat Key's next election is March 2014, which will be followed by the Aug. 26, 2014, primary election for county commissioners, school board and the governor.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, Ext. 6686. Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald also contributed to this report.

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