The altered forms appeared in Broward, Santa Rosa, Citrus and Okaloosa counties
Just a day after Florida’s election left top state races too close to call; a Democratic party leader instructed staffers to share altered election forms with voters to fix signature issues on absentee ballots following the state’s deadline.
The altered forms, which appeared in Broward, Santa Rosa, Citrus and Okaloosa counties, were reported to federal prosecutors to review for possible election fraud – as Flordia counties completed a required recount in three top races.
Bins packed with ballots are accumulating at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections’ office as employees count votes during a recount Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, in Lauderhill, Fla.
But according to an email acquired by the USA TODAY, Florida Democrats were organizing a widespread statewide effort beyond those counties to give voters the modified forms to fix incorrect absentee ballots after the Nov. 5 deadline.
Democratic party leaders gave staffers copies of a form, otherwise known as a “cure affidavit,” that had been altered to include an inaccurate Nov. 8 deadline.
According to naplesnews: One Palm Beach Democratic activist said in an interview the idea was to have voters fix and submit as many absentee ballots as possible with the altered forms in hopes of later adding them in vote totals if a judge ruled such ballots were allowed.
An email that Jennifer Kim, Florida Democratic Party’s central deputy field director, sent Nov. 7 to party workers instructing them how to give voters an altered form to fix signature difficulties with their absentee ballots after the state deadline.
Kim’s email shows this is a statewide effort to give voters the altered form with the wrong deadline to return it.
The altered forms have turned up in several counties and have been turned over to federal prosecutors to review for possible election fraud.
U.S. Chief Judge Mark Walker ruled Thursday that voters should have until Saturday to correct signatures on ballots, a move that could open the door for these ballots returned with altered forms to be counted.
Republicans were supporting Gov. Rick Scott, who leads U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson by less than 13,000 votes in the recount, appealed the ruling.
The Democratic Party email was sent before Nelson, and his party allies filed a series of lawsuits questioning some voting rules that applied during the election, claiming they disenfranchised voters.
Jake Sanders, a Democratic consultant in the Treasure Coast who saw the email, told the USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida that he warned party staffers about the legality of using an altered form, but was ignored.
“I warned FDP staff members of the questionable legal status of altering a state form and misleading people their vote would be counted before the court case played out,” Sanders said. “And coordinated campaign leadership told them to keep pushing it that, ‘We are exhausting every possibility.’”
Sanders said the legality of the use of the altered form was never discussed.
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To Sanders, the party was not being upfront with voters and “undermining making sure every vote counts.”
“They should have been saying, ‘This is unprecedented. We are fighting for your vote to count. Fill this out so we can fight for you.’ But self-imposing a fake deadline and deceiving people is counter to that,” Sanders said.
Jennifer Kim, the party’s Central Florida deputy field director who also served as deputy training director, was clear in her Nov. 7 email that staffers should target people who submitted absentee vote-by-mail ballots before Election Day and did not sign them properly.
Her email subject line said “VBM signature cure instructions” and labeled the list of voters to be contacted as “VBM signature chases.”
That same day, however, state Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo wrote on a private Facebook page that efforts to fix ballots should be focused on provisional ballots, which were handled separately with a Nov. 8 deadline for voters to fix any issues.
“Hi, all. Once again, to clarify: the activity taking place today is for provisional ballots. Not absentee ballots,” Rizzo’s note read.
Provisional ballots do not need to be corrected to be accepted by a county’s canvassing board, but voters can provide additional information to help resolve any outstanding issues.
They also use a separate state form for voters to complete when filing a provisional ballot.
Scott’s campaign said Thursday that Nelson should demand Rizzo’s resignation in the wake of news about the party’s connection to the altered election documents and the plan to share with voters.
“Bill Nelson can either stay silent and be in favor of organized fraud by the Democrat Party, or he can do the right thing and demand the immediate resignation of Florida’s Democrat Party Chair,” said Jackie Schutz Zeckman, Scott’s campaign manager.
Nelson’s campaign did not respond Thursday. Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Penalosa also did not respond Thursday to requests for comment about the use of the altered forms.
The party compiled a list of voters and their contact information across the state who had their vote-by-mail ballots flagged with signature problems, and therefore not eligible.
“These are people that submitted VBMs before Election Day and did not sign them properly,” Kim wrote in the email.
It is not clear how many altered forms were sent across the state, but Kim’s email outlined a step-by-step process for volunteers and staffers to follow to get as many voters as possible to submit the altered form three days after the deadline.
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“The voters MUST print out the form and sign it by hand,” Kim wrote in the email that attached copies of the altered forms in both English and Spanish. The email also included a sheet with the contact information of all election supervisors in the state.
Among those Democrats on Kim’s email was Joe Walters of Brandon, listed by the Nelson campaign as a recount contact.
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The document Kim attached to her email was an altered state form to fix an absentee ballot with signature problems.
The altered form modified the original state document by replacing the deadline identified as “no later than 5 p.m. on the day before the election” with a new deadline “no later than 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8.”
Kim’s email instructed staff and volunteers to use the list of voters to contact about their signature problems on the absentee ballots, to complete the form on the phone with the voter and to email the completed form to the voter.
The voter was instructed to print the form and to sign it. And Kim’s email instructed the party workers to tell voters to deliver the signed form to their local election office.
Kim told staffers that voters should reply back to them after they delivered the forms at the party’s email, [email protected]
That email was also included in documents Florida election officials referred to federal prosecutors in connection to the altered forms received by Broward and the other three counties.
“If needed (party) staff or volunteer should go pick up their affidavit and deliver it for them if they are not able to deliver by 5 p.m. Thursday. (Each office should identify a runner that can do this.),” her email states.
“We will also follow with a tracking system for people who we send affidavits,” Kim told staffers.
Pam Keith, a Palm Beach County, Democratic activist, came under fire Wednesday after Republicans circulated a screenshot of a Nov. 7 deleted tweet she sent to about 22,000 of her Twitter followers, encouraging people to fix their absentee ballots two days after the state-mandated deadline.
Keith told the USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida that she was aware of the deadline to submit “cure affidavits” had expired but she told people there was still time to fix their absentee ballots.
She then directed voters to email Katharine Priegues, a field organizer with the Florida Democratic Party, with the subject line “I want to help” for instructions on what to do.
“I was trying to show that if given notice, voters would try to fix their ballots,” Keith said. “I was putting the word out because I was anticipating a challenge of that deadline (in court).”
Keith, who this year ran in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 18th Congressional District, knew that because the deadline to submit the “cure affidavits” had passed, it was almost guaranteed they would be rejected by election supervisors, who were under “no obligation to accept the affidavits.”
“But better to have evidence in hand,” said Keith, who volunteered for Democrat Andrew Gillum’s campaign for governor.
That evidence would be a record of emails sent by voters who wanted to fix their absentee ballots but couldn’t do so because they couldn’t meet the state-imposed deadline.
She said she did not alter the form or circulated by others in the party and has no ideas who did.
She said she doesn’t consider her efforts to encourage voters after the deadline to fix their absentee ballots election to be fraud, arguing she acted because she believes the deadline to fix absentee ballots was arbitrary.
“It is not fraud to try and correct something. There’s nothing fraudulent about that,” she said.
After Walker’s ruling Thursday to allow voters more time to fix signature problems on absentee ballots, Keith said the actions that she and other Democrats took to help voters with the altered forms was justified.
“The deadline wasn’t ‘wrong,’ per se. It was functionally meaningless and arbitrary,” Keith said.
“Most people never get notice, and many ballots weren’t even looked at until the deadline had passed.”
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The Department of State, which oversees elections, raised concerns about the altered forms, arguing that making changes to state forms is a criminal offense in Florida. The forms were forwarded on Nov, 9 to federal prosecutors.
Federal law defines election fraud to include preventing voters from participating in a federal election “through such tactics as disseminating false information” about the race, as outlined in an Oct. 25 letter to the state department by Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry C. Wallace in Miami.
Wallace, who is handling federal election complaints in Florida, declined to comment when contacted about an investigation into the altered forms.
“Making or using an altered form is a criminal offense under Florida law,” wrote Bradley McVay, the state department’s lawyer, when he referred the altered forms circulated in Broward and three other counties to federal prosecutors.
“More fundamentally, altering a form in a manner that provides the incorrect date for a voter to cure a defect (or an incorrect method as it related to provisional ballots) imposes a burden on the voter significant enough to frustrate the voter’s ability to vote.”