The Miami Herald

Miami-Dade authorities launch probe into alleged absentee-ballot violations

Miami-Dade law-enforcement authorities have launched an investigation into potential absentee-ballot fraud connected to next month’s primary election.

Rumors swirled late Wednesday that two women were being questioned by police after being caught with a bundle of absentee ballots in Hialeah, a political hotbed where many elderly residents prefer to vote by mail. But few details were available from police and prosecutors.

State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, herself on the Aug. 14 ballot, issued a statement urging voters to take special care with their ballots. Her statement, regarding “an ongoing investigation of individuals collecting or handling absentee ballots,” noted a county ordinance makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to pick up or return more than two absentee ballots other than their own.

“All of Miami-Dade County’s voters should be very careful with their absentee ballots,” Rundle said. “The ordinance contains very specific language on how absentee ballots are now to be handled.”

The target of the investigation, by the Miami-Dade police public corruption unit, is unclear.

Political Cortadito, a local blog run by former Miami Herald reporter Elaine de Valle, reported that two women were detained by police in Hialeah on Wednesday afternoon with about a dozen absentee ballots. Police and prosecutors declined to confirm or deny the report.

The women, de Valle wrote, claimed to work for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s reelection campaign.

“No, they do not work for my campaign — absolutely not,” Gimenez said. “My campaign workers are told specifically that they are in no way shape or form to handle or touch any absentee ballots.”

De Valle, who has generally written favorably of Gimenez, suggested the women actually work for political consultant Sasha Tirador — the mayoral campaign manager of Gimenez’s chief rival, County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez.

Martinez and Tirador denied any connection to the women.

“I checked with my campaign manager,” Martinez said. “She says those people do not work for our campaign.”

When asked if the women work for her, Tirador added: “Never have in the past, not in the present, and obviously not in the future.”

Tirador was investigated as part of a 2008 state attorney’s office probe into potential absentee-ballot fraud in Hialeah during a congressional race. No charges were filed.

Absentee-ballot brokers are nothing new in Miami-Dade’s rough-and-tumble political scene. Campaign operatives obtain lists of people who have requested to vote by mail, and after the ballots are mailed out, boleteros, as they are known in Spanish, call or go door-to-door to homes or voter-rich senior centers to offer assistance filling out the ballot.

Last year, the county ethics commission found that the votes of three residents of a North Miami Beach assisted-living facility were compromised in the 2010 general election, though there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges.

The incident prompted county commissioners to put teeth into the Miami-Dade ordinance that regulates absentee ballots. The ordinance now imposes a $1,000 fine or 60 days in jail for breaking the law.

The law allows a person to turn in two absentee ballots in addition to their own: one from an immediate family member and the other from a voter who has signed an affidavit designating that person as responsible for the ballot.

During last fall’s mayoral elections in Hialeah, candidates traded accusations of supporters collecting ballots from seniors and at public housing facilities. Police were called in at least one incident; in another, a campaign volunteer and a cameraman linked to de Valle staked out boleteros.

Miami Herald staff writer Christina Veiga contributed to this report.

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