Politics

Absentee ballot fraud made easy in Miami-Dade

 

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Psst!

Wanna commit absentee-ballot fraud?

Well, all you need is a computer, a telephone and a dummy address. Armed with that, there’s a good chance you can request and vote another person’s absentee ballot.

It’s a felony. It’s not a guaranteed method to cast a fraudulent vote that counts. And it’s unlikely it could happen in big enough numbers to change an election.

But chances are you won’t get caught because it can be done anonymously.

You can thank the Republican-led Legislature for all that.

Republicans in Florida dominate absentee balloting, which they’ve made easy. They have little incentive to limit it, even though nonpartisan groups like the 2006 U.S. Elections Assistance Commission noted that “absentee balloting is subject to the greatest proportion of fraudulent acts, followed by vote buying and voter registration fraud.”

Since and before that report, Republicans in the Legislature and governor’s office have instead scaled back anti-fraud reforms instituted after an absentee-ballot scandal in the 1997 Miami mayor’s race.

Meantime, they passed a 2011 law limiting voter-registration drives and early-voting hours.

Democrats are early voters in the same way that Republicans are absentee-ballot voters — especially in Miami-Dade’s Cuban-American community, where mail-in voting is highly popular.

So Republicans are cool to the idea of more absentee-ballot regulations even in the wake of Wednesday’s arrest of Hialeah ballot broker Deisy Cabrera.

“We should be careful not to over-react and potentially stigmatize the vote-by-mail process or make the process more difficult by creating obstacles to voting by mail,” U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a Republican from Miami, said in a statement, echoing his comments on Spanish-language radio.

“This would only result in suppressing the vote of Cuban-Americans, many of whom prefer or require voting by mail, and disenfranchising this critical Republican constituency to the benefit of the Democratic Party and its candidates,” he said.

Yup. Suddenly Republicans like Rivera sound like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Democrats grousing about the HB 1355 election law passed in 2011.

Asked about the new law and absentee voter-fraud Friday, Gov. Rick Scott spoke in generalities and said his Secretary of State would be “reviewing it.”

“I want people to vote, but I also want to make sure there’s no fraud involved in elections,” Scott said when he signed HB 1355.

A court has thrown out the voter-registration crackdowns as too burdensome. The cutback in early-voting days is under challenge.

Scott said nothing about Cabrera, charged with violating state and Miami-Dade county laws for possessing 31 voted ballots and allegedly forging an elderly voter’s signature.

Called a “boletera,” the 56-year-old Cabrera hails from an old and dying school of street-level politics where volunteers go door-to-door to help senior citizens receive, vote and mail in their ballots.

Today’s major-campaign absentee-ballot operations rely more on computer queries than boletero shoe leather. A campaign nowadays identifies likely voters with databases, and then phones and mails them to cast their mail-in ballot from home.

No face-to-face contact is needed.

But that’s also the case when it comes to absentee voters who deal with a county elections department.

A voter can simply call the department and get an absentee ballot sent out by giving his name, address and date of birth — easily accessible information to anyone with a computer. The caller can then have the ballot sent anywhere in the county.

I know. I did it Friday, when I called from a blocked phone and had my absentee ballot delivered to a co-worker’s home address.

The only extra question asked? Would I want it delivered there through August 2014.

A sophisticated political group that decides to steal ballots could call as if they were other people — say unsuspecting elderly voters or the 80,000 people in Miami-Dade who vote so infrequently that they’re classified as “inactive” voters. Chances are those voters would never know someone else requested a ballot in their name and had it sent to any of the thousands of foreclosed properties in Miami-Dade.

More than 15,000 inactive voters cast ballots in the 2008 presidential race in Miami-Dade.

Receiving and voting the anonymous ballots is one thing. Getting them to count is another. The crooks would still have to forge the voter’s signature.

And the elections department says it has a specially trained crew of workers in charge of matching the voter’s signature, which is kept on computer file, to an electronic image of the signature on the ballot.

Still, with nearly 50,000 absentee ballots already cast in anticipation of this Aug. 14 primary, a few fraudulent ballots could slip through. It wouldn’t be many.

But then, in a general election the number of absentee ballots that county staff would have to eyeball would be far higher — and so theoretically would the chances of success for a scammer. In 2008, nearly 170,000 absentee ballots were cast in Miami-Dade.

Republicans accounted for 48 percent of that total in a county where they were just 33 percent of the total vote. About 77 percent of those Republican absentee ballots were cast by Hispanic voters, who accounted for 71 percent of the GOP rolls.

It’s unlikely that many of those ballots were fraudulent because, experts say, voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

One way to reduce the potential for fraud even further would be to require a witness to sign the absentee ballot along with the voter. That was required after Miami’s 1997 mayor’s race, but the Legislature did away with that law in 2004.

Three years before, the Legislature first scaled back the witness-signature law. And it also struck the so-called “show-cause” provision in statute that limited absentee ballots to those who couldn’t make it to the polls due to poor health, work status or religion.

Eliminating that “show cause” provision opened the absentee-ballot flood gates. Coming just months after the controversial 2000 presidential elections, the law was hailed as a way to expand voter access along with early-voting and the use of provisional ballots.

Over the years, the Republican Party grew more slowly than the Democratic Party in Florida, thanks partly to voter-registration groups like ACORN.

While debating HB 1355, Republicans noted the problems that cropped up with ACORN and new voter-registration forms, one of which was submitted in the name of Mickey Mouse. They didn’t point out, however, that Mickey Mouse never made it on the voter rolls because the prank was caught early.

Also, in ACORN’s case, the organization actually alerted authorities to suspicious registration forms its petitioners had gathered, resulting in some arrests. Voter-registration groups had to submit every registration form it received — even the phony ones — because the Legislature requires it. Then the Legislature punished them like fraudsters.

Creating a phony voter is relatively easy, but getting him to cast a ballot is almost impossible thanks to voter ID laws. IDs aren’t checked for absentee ballots once a voter makes it on to the rolls. But they are checked at early-voting precincts.

There have been no documented cases in Florida of any fraud associated with early-voting hours, which the Legislature scaled back as well.

With the help of unions and the organization of black churches, Democrats mastered early-voter turnout, which became particularly common the Sunday before the Tuesday general Election Day.

In 2008, Miami-Dade Democrats cast about 175,000 early votes — nearly half of them from African Americans. The Democratic early-vote total exceeded the Republican totals for early-vote and absentee ballots by 7 percent.

Guess what early voting day was eliminated in HB 1355? Yup. The Sunday before Election Day.

Democrats cried voter suppression. But Republicans, subtly swiping at President Barack Obama’s hometown, said the bill was needed to crack down on “the Chicago method” of voting.

The Hialeah method, apparently, was just fine for them.

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