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.
In our previous coverage of this story we discussed a third possible explanation, one offered by Election Integrity watchdog Bev Harris. She posited that third-party contractors responsible for actually mailing out absentee ballots to those who request them online might have been able to reroute specific ones to an alternate address, had they been working in cahoots with the “bad guys” who attempted to fraudulently request the absentee ballots online in the first place.
“If you have a few thousand strategically targeted extra ballots that you know are bogus, and you reroute the database to an off-the-public-record consultant during the print & mail phase, you can deliver those ballots anywhere you want. They can all be sent to the same address; no one would know,” she said, adding this troubling thought: “Whoever does the print & mail phase has both the absentee request database and total control over where absentee ballots go.”
It remains unknown if the allegations currently being attributed to Garcia’s campaign are related to the two separate Republican races where similar phantom requests for absentee ballots were made. It was Garcia’s race that was reportedly targeted by the domestic IP addresses in Miami. The failed attempts to request absentee ballots in the two Republican contests, reportedly, are said to have been masked by 12 different foreign IP addresses.
“The requests from domestic IP addresses in some cases used voters’ real email addresses,” the Miami Herald discovered during its analysis, noting a “key difference” in the online schemes on behalf of Republican voters versus that said to be used for Democratic voters. “The requests from foreign IP addresses were mostly formulaic and clearly fake. Political campaigns routinely compile voters’ email addresses.”
Were the requests made on behalf of Republican voters, from proxy IP addresses, carried out by the same crew in hopes of confusing investigators? Or were they also real attempts by the same or different crew to get absentee ballots either into the hands of actual voters or otherwise have them rerouted and intercepted by campaign officials? Those questions still remain a mystery at this time.
One more, perhaps, related mystery here is noted by the Herald: “A separate, federal corruption investigation stemming from last year’s congressional primary has been examining whether Republican David Rivera, the incumbent Garcia ultimately defeated, had ties to the illegally funded primary campaign of Justin Lamar Sternad, one of Garcia’s primary opponents. Rivera has denied wrongdoing.”
‘The source of all voter fraud’
As we also detailed in our previous story on this scheme or schemes, The BRAD BLOG has long decried the many perils of absentee balloting and Vote-by-Mail (VBM) elections. The Florida cases underscore those concerns once again, and it seems the Florida prosecutor agrees with us.
As we have documented many times over the past decade, most recently here just last week, where there are concerns about actual “voter fraud” in elections (versus the gaming of entire elections via systemic fraud most easily carried out by insiders who have direct access to voter registration databases and computer result tabulation systems), it is almost always absentee ballots that are gamed in some way. That, despite purposely misleading information to the contrary offered by Republicans attempting to push for disenfranchising polling place Photo ID restrictions.
The Florida prosecutor working on the Florida absentee cyberhacks appears to agree with that assertion, according to comments offered to the Miami Herald.
“Historically, absentee voting is the source of all voter fraud,” Miami-Dade state attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said in an interview, during which she credited the paper for its crucial role in the ongoing investigation.
Republicans, their supporters in the right-wing media, as well as partisan RW organizations operating under false non-partisan tax-exempt status, often disingenuously cite absentee ballot fraud cases, such as those at the heart of this matter, in order to support their calls for polling place Photo ID restriction laws. Such laws, however, do nothing to combat the very real concerns of absentee fraud. Actual polling place voter fraud (versus absentee ballot fraud) that might be deterred by Photo ID restrictions is extraordinarily rare. A recent analysis by a non-partisan news consortium examining all election fraud cases in all 50 states dating back to 2000, for example, found just 10 cases of polling place impersonation — out of hundreds of millions of votes cast across the nation — that might have been deterred by such laws.
At the same time, however, the push by both Democrats and Republicans alike for more and more Vote-by-Mail elections continues to threaten democracy. As we recently reported just last month after the passage of a sweeping new election reform bill in Colorado, officials from both major parties are backing the new law that sends an absentee ballot to every single registered voter in the state, for every election, whether the voter wants one or not.
In Colorado, under the new law, there will be no need to hack the online absentee ballot request system, as was reportedly carried out in Florida. Everyone in the state will soon receive such a ballot. One can only wonder how long it will be before we see a Colorado story such as the one out of Oregon earlier this year (where elections are now carried out solely by mail), where a man pled guilty to offering $20 apiece for blank, Vote-by-Mail ballots.
At the same time, officials from both the Republican and Democratic parties are similarly pushing for Internet Voting schemes around the nation, which, as underscored by the cyberhack attempts in Florida and in other recent disturbing election hack stories, should become a “field day” for those election insiders and outsiders who wish to wreack havoc on our system of representative democracy.