In My Opinion

For the cost of a ‘free’ stamp on an absentee ballot: Democracy

She warned us in 2004. And a grand jury she impaneled had warned us in 1998. Without tough laws to weed out abuses, absentee-ballot fraudsters would continue to game the system and corrupt our elections.

After the rigged 1997 mayoral election in Miami, where absentee ballots were cast by dead people and ballot runners were illegally filling out ballots for the infirm and elderly — and getting paid a pretty penny to do it — the Florida Legislature passed laws to crack down on voter fraud, following some of the recommendations of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and the grand jury. The new laws required a witness to sign absentee ballot forms to confirm that the person signing the ballot envelope was the actual voter. And they made it illegal to pay for ballot brokers — or so it seemed.

But the feds were not happy with the crackdown, fearing they would disenfranchise elderly or infirm voters who weren’t able to go to the polls, and few of the new rules were enforced in Florida. Then came the contested 2000 elections, and rules that capped the number of ballots one individual can witness or how many ballots a “ballot broker” can turn in to the post office or elections office, were dropped. Voters didn’t even have to give a reason why they would vote absentee — it was wide open.

And as more people began voting absentee, and more of them were elderly Republicans, the GOP-led Legislature and then-Secretary of State Glenda Hood pushed to get rid of the witness requirement by 2004. Turned out county supervisor of elections offices weren’t paying much attention to the witness signature anyway and only checking the voters’ signatures. And, of course, the Miami-Dade grand jury’s recommendation to add teeth to that requirement and get a license number or some other ID for the witness (too often shifty boleteros and boleteras paid by each ballot collected) went nowhere. (The grand jury in 1998 also recommended two witnesses per ballot, but politicians cried foul, saying it was criminalizing good people who had no reason to commit fraud.)

By 2004, the witness requirement was dumped. “From a prosecutor’s perspective, you need that check and balance,” Fernandez Rundle lamented in an April 13, 2004, article in The Miami Herald. “Often times that’s the only evidence — or it’s going to be the best evidence — of fraud.”

Exactly. It was the examination of those witness signatures in the 1997 Miami race that led to the arrest of 56 elections fraudsters, and the conviction of former Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez.

Then came a little situation of sorts in Orlando in 2006, when Mayor Buddy Dyer and some of his campaign folks were accused of paying ballot brokers, or as we say in Miami, boleteros. See, Buddy is a Democrat, so people on the other side of the aisle aligned with the GOP started to once again question if this law was fair.

Buddy’s people weren’t committing fraud by choosing candidates for voters, they were just picking up sealed ballots to save voters the cost of a stamp. And sure enough, the floodgates were opened again. The Legislature “fine-tuned” the law to allow brokers to be paid to collect ballots. It would be illegal only if there is “intent to alter, change, modify or erase any vote.”

So here we are in 2012 and Fernandez Rundle’s office and Miami-Dade investigators nabbed one Deisy Cabrera for allegedly picking up lots more ballots and even signing one for a sick, elderly woman who doesn’t even know what’s happening in her room at the nursing home.

Flashback to Feb. 2, 1998, and the grand jury’s report that found wrongdoing in absentee ballot collections in Miami and Miami Beach — this after a previous absentee-ballot debacle in Hialeah in 1993.

“No municipality is safe and no election is sacrosanct while such voting corruption is seen as a viable tool,” the grand jury report noted. “But until strong steps are taken to make voting fraud a dangerous undertaking for any political candidate or political machine, we remain concerned that voting fraud will be assumed to be a natural part of today’s political process.”

Among the grand jury’s recommendations: have Miami-Dade County pay for pre-paid postage for absentee ballots, the kind that only gets charged by the post office if it’s used. “Such an action would serve to reduce the dependence of an absentee voter on a third party in order to obtain a stamp to mail the ballot,” the report stated. “This is a problem that is particularly prevalent among our elderly and infirm voter population as it allows unscrupulous individuals an avenue to gain access to these voters.”

Fernandez Rundle, who recused herself from the Cabrera case because one of her campaign workers may have been seen in the boletera’s company, is caught in the middle of a fraud not of her making. She warned us then, and it came to pass — and unfairly compromised her own re-election bid in the process.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, Election Day, our state attorney isn’t dropping the absentee ballot issue. The next grand jury begins in three weeks, and she told me last week she’s already asked them to dig into the absentee ballot shenanigans. Fourteen years after the last report, we’re still dealing with ballot fraud.

Still, there’s one clean fix. Make the boleteras and boleteros unnecessary by simply including free postage on the return envelope of an absentee ballot. The public cost is worth it for saving what’s left of our democracy.

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