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Saturday, October 20, 2018

Partial Answers Emerge In Florida’s Fraudulent Absentee Ballot Request Cyberhack Mysteries

Originally posted at The Brad Blog.

It seems we may now have at least a partial answer to the Miami-Dade absentee ballot request cyberhacking mystery we initially reported on in March.

As we detailed at that time, some 2,500 absentee ballots were fraudulently requested online for three different 2012 primary elections in Miami-Dade, FL. One race involved requests for Democratic absentee ballots in a U.S. House primary, the other two involved requests for Republican ballots in two different Florida State House primary races. All of the fraudulent “phantom” ballot requests are said to have been flagged as such at the Supervisor of Elections’ office and, therefore, never fulfilled.

Late last year, a grand jury and federal prosecutors [PDF] were unable to identify the person or persons behind the failed attempts, as well as why they were actually made, since the ballots, had the fraudulent requests not been flagged and prevented, were set to go to the actual addresses of real voters whose online identities had been fraudulently used to make the requests online.

One of the reasons that prosecutors were originally unable to identify those behind the attempted July, 2012 cyberhack was because the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses used for most of the requests were masked by proxy IP addresses from overseas. Excellent investigative reporting from The Miami Herald discovered that a number of the requests came from IP addresses located in the Miami-Dade area. For reasons currently chalked up to administrative confusion, the Elections Division never gave those Miami-area IP addresses to the grand jury.

Armed with the new information offered by the Miami-Dade IP addresses, it now appears that prosecutors are closing in on suspects believed to be behind at least one of those sets of cyberhacks — the ones involving the Democratic U.S. House primary. Over the weekend the investigation led to the resignation of the Chief of Staff of the Democratic congressman who eventually won the primary in question, as well as last November’s general election.

The ‘Democratic’ part of the mystery

According to two separate reports over the weekend by Patricia Mazzei at The Miami Herald (she is the one who initially broke the news of the Miami-Dade IP addresses), Jeffrey Garcia, the chief of staff (no relation) for Rep. Joe Garcia (D-FL) “abruptly resigned” after being implicated in at least the failed absentee ballot scheme concerning last year’s Democratic primary for the newly created 26th congressional district.

Rep. Garcia claims to have been unaware of the scheme until late last week, telling The Miami Herald on Friday that he was “shocked and disappointed” and that he “had no earthly idea this was going on.”

The congressman says his chief of staff took responsibility for the plot after the homes of two other staffers — communications director Giancarlo Sopo and campaign manager John Estes — were raided by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office in search of computers and other electronic devices thought to have been used in the phantom ballot requests. None of the three men, Jeffrey Garcia, Sopo or Estes, have offered public comment yet.

The Miami Herald reports that “466 of 472 phantom requests in congressional district 26 targeted Democrats. In House District 103, 864 of 871 requests targeted Republicans, as did 1,184 of 1,191 requests in House District 112.”

What was the point?

In the fraudulent requests for absentee ballots in all three races — in both the Democratic U.S. House race, as well as in the two Republican State House District primaries — the attempted requests were for the absentee ballots to be sent to the actual address of the legal voters being impersonated online, even though the online absentee ballot request system used by Miami-Dade allows for the requester to specify an alternate address where the ballot should be sent. (See screenshot at right.)

The point of the scheme, therefore, has been another mystery at the center of all of this, and largely still is.

At a press conference on Saturday, an “angry” Rep. Garcia described the plot as “ill-conceived,” but added: “I think it was a well-intentioned attempt to maximize voter turnout.”

Mazzei writes that “the hackers behind the scheme appear to have been trying to expand the number of absentee voters to target with fliers, phone calls and visits from campaign workers. Win the support of enough of them and that might swing a close election.”

However, no public evidence has yet emerged to support that particular explanation for the scheme. It seems an incredibly risky way to get absentee ballots in to the hands of voters who might otherwise legally be convinced to show up to the polls to vote.

Another possible explanation offered previously is that the plotters were hoping to try and steal the absentee ballots from the voters’ mailboxes. That scheme seems even more far-fetched, as it would have been both difficult to pull off and dangerous to accomplish without risking being discovered.