When police raided Daytona Beach City Commissioner Derrick Henry's office this week and seized his computer, they say they discovered evidence of what election experts say has become a rampant, largely ignored and troubling issue in Florida — the widespread abuse of absentee ballots.
Police say Henry's computer was used to obtain dozens of absentee ballots prior to the city's Aug. 24 elections, in which he was re-elected.
The Daytona Beach probe started when an elections supervisor noticed that as many as 90 absentee ballots had been requested from two e-mail addresses, and that they came from a single computer. (It is illegal in Florida for anyone other than a family member to help in requesting an absentee ballot.)
Volusia County Election Supervisor Ann McFall said she grew suspicious “because 40 requests arrived in one batch on the night of Aug. 6, and another 15 the next day.
“The absentee ballots had no phone numbers on them, and my first concern was to get them in compliance. I emailed the sender and when I got no response checked with the Daytona Beach clerk, because all the requests were from Zone 5 and he didn’t recognize the address. Then I handed it over to the sheriff’s office,” she said.
Police tracked the computer to the office of Henry, the city commissioner from Zone 5, who was running for re-election -- and who easily defeated his two opponents with 65 per cent of the vote.
McFall declined to talk further about the investigation, except to say that it was active. Phone calls to Henry were not returned. If he were to be charged with election fraud, a felony, he could get five years in prison for each fraudulent absentee ballot he requested.
Voting experts say the case could be the tip of the iceberg. Absentee ballots, they say, are the Achilles heel of the electoral system, and nowhere more than in Florida, which has a long history of absentee ballot fraud.
In 1997 the results of Miami's mayoral election were thrown out and a new election was ordered when it was discovered that thousands of absentee ballots had undermined the electoral process.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, fraudulent absentee ballots have sparked investigations in virtually every election cycle in the past 20 years.
“Absentee ballots are now the weapon of choice for people who want to commit voter fraud,” said Hans von Spakousky, a former Justice Department attorney who monitored voter fraud. “Campaigns will order absentee ballots and then follow the postman door to door on the day they are delivered to pick them up and control the vote.”
“Any time you get large numbers of absentee ballots being issued, it should be taken as a sign that trouble is brewing,” he warned.
And McFall, the county election supervisor, agrees with him.
“This year 50 percent of the vote in the county will be either early voting or absentee ballots,” she told FOXnews.com.
She said that despite reforms in the voting system, absentee ballot abuse is still a real problem.
“Electronic requests mean that people don’t have to show up, don’t have to provide phone numbers and are easier to abuse,” she said.
Perhaps her biggest concern is that voting records in Florida make birth dates publicly available. “It makes requesting absentee ballots by people other than the voter easy.”
“The system needs to be addressed by the legislature,” she said. “I am very concerned.”