April 13, 2004
Absentee ballots may not require a witness
State election officials want to do away with requiring absentee voters to find a witness to sign their ballots, which critics say could lead to fraud.
By Erika Bolstad and Michael Vasquez, firstname.lastname@example.org
TALLAHASSEE - With thousands more Floridians expected to use absentee ballots to vote in November's presidential election, state election officials are calling for changes that critics say could invite fraud.
Election supervisors across the state want to do away with requiring absentee voters to find a witness to sign their ballots, even though witness information proved crucial in overturning a rigged 1997 Miami mayoral race.
The witness portion of the ballot is unnecessary, election officials say, since their clerks merely verify whether the voter's signature matches the one on file. Voters must have a witness's signature and address on the absentee ballot, but no one in the election office ever checks the address or identity of the witness.
And canvassing boards must throw out ballots with problem witness information.
A state Division of Elections survey found that problems with witness signatures disqualified more than 2,300 absentee ballots in the March 9 presidential primary.
"We want to make sure every voter has the confidence their vote is being counted," said Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood, who is backing legislation that does away with the witness requirement in time for November, when Floridians may once again be pivotal in choosing the nation's president.
A bill killing the witness requirement is ready for a vote in both chambers of the Legislature.
The state association of elections supervisors supports the idea as well.
But critics of the proposed changes fear losing what they call one of the last remaining safeguards against absentee voting abuse.
"From a prosecutor's perspective, you need that check and balance," Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said. "Often times that's the only evidence -- or it's going to be the best evidence -- of fraud."
Fernández Rundle said she was "disappointed" that the proposed bill to stop requiring witnesses doesn't also add stiffer penalties for those caught cheating.
When looking into allegations of voter fraud, investigators often turn to the witness portion of the ballot in search of votes witnessed by "ballot brokers," who are paid by campaigns to gather absentee votes.
Investigators view with particular suspicion scores of ballots witnessed by the same broker. A Herald investigation into the 1997 Miami election found numerous irregularities -- as well as outright criminal conduct -- associated with some brokered votes.
"An election comes along, they'll make a couple of thousands of dollars, the good ones," former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre said of ballot brokers. "People make a business out of these things, they get paid so much per vote, and you're not going to stop that." Without witness information, some say, unsavory absentee ballot tactics will only get worse.
"It's a very minimal requirement in the first place," said former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, who led the successful challenge to overturn the 1997 Miami election results. To discard even that validation, he said, would leave the system more open to potential abuse.
After the 1997 Miami election revealed the vulnerability of absentee ballots to tampering, the state Legislature responded with new guidelines clamping down on their use. But the federal government, fearing the new rules might violate voting rights, never allowed Florida to enforce them.
Some of the changes focused on verifying voter identity by requiring identification such as social security numbers from those requesting absentee ballots.
Other rules were designed to limit the influence of ballot brokers over elections -- including caps on the number of ballots one person can witness and how many ballots that person can drop off at elections headquarters. By 2001, the Legislature had discarded all of these restrictions, and also no longer required voters to give a reason to vote absentee.
But as the number of people voting absentee over the past several years increased, so, too, did the number of ballots thrown out because the witness portion was left blank.
"Why would we want to disregard their ability to have their vote counted?" said Rep. Roger Wishner, a Sunrise Democrat sponsoring the House version of legislation doing away with the witness requirement. "What we're doing is invalidating legitimate votes because a small section of the population might be committing fraud."
Supporters of Wishner's bill point to a 2002 recommendation by a governor's task force on elections to get rid of the witness information. But one of the task force's previous reports says the group had "some concern" that such a change could encourage fraud, and as a compromise the panel also recommended strengthened criminal sentences for voter fraud as a deterrent in lieu of the witness requirement.
The current proposal in the Legislature to get rid of witness information makes no mention of stiffer penalties for absentee offenders.
Miami's 1997 election is not the only recent local election overturned because of absentee fraud. A 1993 mayoral election in Hialeah was also thrown out because of absentee irregularities, and the city is again in an absentee ballot dispute, this one from from a contested November election. Last month, a mayoral candidate in Orlando challenged his city's election results, saying fraudulent absentee votes tainted the process.
Citing her county's sordid election history, Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Constance Kaplan remains lukewarm on the current proposal. "I can understand both sides," Kaplan said.
"On the one hand, we're rejecting ballots, which I hate to see. On the other hand, we have to be cautious that absentee ballots aren't being abused."
Tossing out ballots without a witness might have made a difference in several recent nail-biter races. Fort Lauderdale Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff won a state House seat in January by just 12 votes. The outcome could have been different, one of her former opponents says, if more disqualified absentee votes had been counted.
Of the 83 absentee ballots rejected in that race, 66 were thrown out for problems with witness signatures.
Those wishing to get rid of the witness signature say they would rather err on the side of the voter than see so many absentee ballots thrown out.
"It tears at your heart strings when you have to disqualify a ballot, because they took the time to fill out a ballot and cast a vote," said Broward County Mayor Ilene Lieberman, who has disqualified absentee ballots as a member of the county's canvassing board.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jimmy Morales said he sympathizes, but worries that absentee voting rules are already too lax. The risk, he says, is that voters will be turned off by news of one overturned election after another and decide their vote doesn't count.
"It's absolutely flawed," Morales said of the current system. "There's almost no checks on the process . . . we make it overly easy to engage in fraudulent absentee ballot voting."
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