Voter fraud investigation terminated after 5 months

Annie Barthlomew and Kaz Alvarez/Sun Star Reporters
Oct. 22, 2013

Last spring semester, 20 fraudulent votes were placed in the ASUAF election that took place between April 18 and 19. Now, five months after an investigation by the Dean of Students office, it has been terminated due to inconclusive evidence.

A timeline of events during the voter fraud investigation. Graphic design by Raechyl Huisingh/Sun Star Layout Editor

A timeline of events during the voter fraud investigation. Graphic design by Raechyl Huisingh/Sun Star Layout Editor (click to enlarge)

Cause for Alarm

On April 22, ASUAF Office Manager Anne Williamson received an email from a student claiming to have received a confirmation email from an election they did not vote in. After several complaints, Williamson contacted the third-party voting service VoteNet used to host the elections.  VoteNet identified more suspicious ballots all connected to three IP addresses.

Looking into the issue, Williamson and Dean of Students Office Coordinator Amber Cagwin collaborated with the Office of Information and Technology on the investigation into this instance of voter fraud  to track down IP addresses connected to fraudulent ballots. The result was a four-page official report sent to Vice Chancellor Mike Sfraga in early May, with recommendations on how to respond.

After contacting individuals who submitted ballots from these locations, Williamson found a trend. “For those who confirmed that they did submit a ballot, the information they provided seemed suspicious; several of them couldn’t quite remember if they had or not, but asked us to keep the ballot, and two others indicated that they had submitted the ballot from on-campus computers, when it is apparent that they submitted their ballots from off campus,” the report said.

Only the first page of the ballot was filled out in the fraudulent votes and had similar spellings for write-in candidates, which made them easier to locate. Through student interviews, Williamson was able to confirm 20 illegitimate votes, with 14 of those votes confirmed fraudulent and pulled before the finalization of official election results by the ASUAF Elections Board on May 5.

The only position affected by the removal was a single senate seat won through a write-in campaign by former ASUAF senator and previous President of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Sophia Grzeskowiak-Amezquita. A week before the election started, Grzeskowiak-Amezquita stopped campaigning because she lost interest in winning the seat. “I wasn’t really surprised, ” Grzeskowiak-Amezquita said after having previously won two senate positions from write-in campaigns. Due to the false ballots, the position moved on to the runner-up, Sarah Walker.

Although the result of the presidential race was unaffected, candidates Christian Burns-Shafer and Erika Phelps received votes from all of the fraudulent ballots. Burns-Shafer said that if he had attempted to sway the election, he would have won.

“If I was involved in the voter fraud I wouldn’t have given myself 16 votes, I would have given myself 16,000 votes,” Burns-Shafer said. Other senate write-ins from the 14 pulled ballots included Ian McKee and current senators Eli Barry-Garland, Shane Poindexter and Brix Hahn.

The information needed to vote is part of a person’s identity and is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. However, there are many authorities on campus with easy access to this information. For instance, students checking a friend into their dorm will list their UA identification number and full name. Instructors have access to this same information on their class list. Student clubs collect personal information from members for rosters, travel and other purposes.

To submit a ballot, a person needs a student’s full name, university email, UA identification number and birth date. To further validate each ballot, students were required to check a box confirming their identity. All voters were sent a confirmation email to their UA student email. Ballots could not be submitted without going through this process.

The email confirmation is a new security measure to the election process due to past instances of voter fraud. “I will admit that I think the security [for elections] has been penetrable in the past, unfortunately,” Williamson said.

“It’s clear that the person responsible did have access to and pulled from a particular list,” said ASUAF President Ayla O’Scannell.

English graduate student Eric Parker believes that a reprimand is in order, but the bigger problem is that the system is ineffective.  He believes that student ID numbers are almost common knowledge.  “That kind of corruption, if it’s easy to commit, will be committed,” Parker said. Parker has access to student information for the purpose of documentation as a function of his job at the UAF Writing Center.

“If I’m a student, I am mad that in a process that is supposed to be about my representation, someone else has gotten involved in it and is potentially pretending to be me,” Dean of Students Don Foley said. “At least on this one, we were able to catch it. What I’m worried about is when we have something like this pop up and no one’s able to detect it.”

The investigation process

Using the names of individuals who were victims of voter fraud, the Cagwin tried to find common links among the group of students. With the goal of finding a roster or list, the Dean of Students Office considered students’ majors, courses enrolled in within the last year, on- or off-campus housing, involvement in the Honors Program, intramural sports teams, teaching assistantship positions and engineering student clubs “given the overwhelming amount of engineering majors in the group,” according to the report.

The individual suspected of committing the voter fraud was a male staff member with potential access to all of the information necessary to cast false ballots, according to the report.

“It was also apparent that these votes occurred within the same hour,” said Nathan Zierfuss-Hubbard, OIT’s Chief Information Security Officer, “We did reach out to ASUAF to offer to help authenticate their case.” They could link the on-campus IP address to an individual building, but would need a criminal complaint to move forward with the off-campus addresses, Zierfuss-Hubbard said.

After contacting individuals who submitted ballots from these locations, Williamson found a trend.

Though student information had been redacted, as well as their connections, the report holds a table depicting how each victim was connected to the suspect.  Out of the 25 suspected ballots, 9 were listed without a connection. All personal information was removed to protect the identities of victims and maintain the privacy that FERPA is meant to protect.

Although the report refers to a single suspect, the investigation was unable to acquire concrete evidence against them. Without filing a criminal complaint, authorities couldn’t follow up on the exact locations of the fraudulent votes with the IP addresses.  Concluding this report were five recommendations given to the Vice Chancellor for University and Student Advancement for moving forward. The location of the computers used and details regarding access to them should be identified. Cameras in the area should also be checked. Confirmation from the Registrar’s Office on the suspect’s Banner access should be acquired. Campus police should be contacted to follow up on identity theft charges for students involved. A meeting should be requested with the suspect and include Don Foley, an HR representative and a police officer. New security options for the ASUAF voting process should be considered.

Actions Taken

Cagwin said the party responsible for committing voter fraud performed three prohibited forms of conduct listed in the UAF Code of Conduct including forgery, falsification, disruptive or obstructive actions, failure to comply with university directives and misuse of official documents. Official documents includes both electronic and paper records.

“It’s not something we want associated with the University,” Cagwin said.

At this time, no criminal complaints have been filed and no charges have been pursued. “OIT could not pursue the investigation pending a criminal complaint and, obviously, that would need to come from ASUAF,” Zierfuss-Hubbard said.

However, ASUAF did not file a criminal complaint. “I did not feel that it was necessarily ASUAF’s place to file a criminal complaint,” Williamson said.

Many of the students spoken to are “extremely upset that someone would gain access to their personal information and use it to submit information while appearing to be the victim without their knowledge,” the report said.

Since the fraud occurred, a 22-year-old male student at California State University San Marcos was sentenced to a year in prison for committing voter fraud at his college by stealing the passwords of 745 students.

To help prevent future instances of identity theft and voter fraud, ASUAF is looking at extra security features offered by VoteNet to add on to future ballots. Currently being considered is an option to have each voter create a profile on VoteNet protected by security questions. Another option is to pull away from VoteNet and house the ballot in UAOnline where students can use their student ID and PIN to access it. While student IDs were used in the previous year’s voter fraud incident, UAOnline PINs  are much harder to acquire.

The Dean of Students did find that something good came out of the experience.  “It’s a lousy reason to have it happen, but it really connected ASUAF to this office,” said Foley. “How do we protect this so that students feel good about it?”

Foley has been with UAF for twenty-three years. “One of my on-going frustrations is that you’ve got some folks making some fairly important decisions at the student level and usually there’s maybe three or four hundred people to put those people in,” Foley said, “You hope that they are great folks who are doing things for all the right reasons. I worry that when something like this happens, people wonder why they should care.”

“Ultimately, everything we do… we’re all just making our own little marks. But what’s important is that we pass that torch over to the next people,” said Grzeskowiak-Amezquita.

The Sfraga’s office directed all questions pertaining to the investigation to Don Foley.

Additional reporting was done by Lakeidra Chavis and Elika Roohi.

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1 Response

  1. Teri Anderson says:

    Good article. Thanks for following up on this and keep following up if there’s any progress!

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