Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley said she does not believe last week’s revelation that a Hialeah man accused of ballot fraud has been a poll worker in recent years is indicative of a pervasive problem in her department.
The case involving poll worker Sergio Robaina, arrested on Aug. 10 on ballot-tampering charges, is the first of its kind anyone in her department can remember, she added.
“I wouldn’t want the public or voters to feel that we have somehow been infiltrated with these people that have ulterior motives because, for the most part, our poll workers are very committed and dedicated individuals who are doing what they do because of pride and wanting to do their civic duty,” Townsley said.
On Friday, El Nuevo Herald learned that Robaina, 74, has been a poll worker in Hialeah for the past four years. Dozens of voters say that for years Robaina has collected their ballots, as he did in the weeks prior to the Aug. 14 elections.
Robaina is one of about 13,000 individuals who are properly trained to work the polls in Miami-Dade County. Before each election, these workers take oaths that they will prevent fraud and affirm that they haven’t been paid to support a candidate or issue that’s on the ballot.
Townsley couldn’t recall another case in the department’s history where a poll worker was found in violation of the oath, which would be a misdemeanor.
The only other requirements for poll workers is to be a U.S. citizen and literate, Townsley said.
“They don’t do criminal background checks or see if there’s any conflict of interest?” asked County Commissioner Xavier Suárez. “That’s absurd.”
Still, Robaina has no criminal record and does not appear to have been a paid a campaign worker in recent years. He did, however, work the polls during several elections in which his nephew, former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, was a candidate.
Sergio Robaina was scheduled to work the Aug. 14 elections but was arrested four days earlier after allegations that he’d tampered with the ballots of a woman with dementia and her son.
Townsley said she’d already decided he would no longer be used as a poll worker when he called in sick on Election Day. Tara Smith, the department’s chief deputy who oversees poll workers, recognized Robaina’s name from news media reports on the day of his arrest and alerted Townsley.
“I called my staff together and gave a directive that we would no longer be employing Mr. Robaina,” Townsley said. “Obviously, we don’t want that kind of suspicion over the process or our elections.”
On Tuesday, Suárez said he has spoken with state legislators in the past about replacing poll workers with teachers or college students.
“Anything other than the system we’ve got,” he said.
In 1997, Suárez won the Miami mayoral election in race that was ultimately overturned by a court due to proof of systematic absentee ballot fraud. A judge found that Suárez was not involved in the fraud but declared his opponent, Joe Carollo, the legal victor.
On Wednesday, Carollo called for new measures to ensure poll workers aren’t related to or employed by candidates.
“People will infiltrate the system because it’s vulnerable,” he said.
Townsley said she thinks that current requirements for poll workers are sufficient.
“I’m not ready to take the leap that this situation is so pervasive that the state has to change the qualifications for being a poll worker,” she said. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for such violations and we will act quickly and decisively.”
El Nuevo Herald also reported on another poll worker, Zoa Caridad Barcena, who is part of a police investigation of a bundle of 164 absentee ballots dropped off at a postal box by a former aide to County Commissioner Esteban Bovo.
Barcena and her husband have been poll workers since March 2011 and worked at a Hialeah precinct on Aug. 14. Police have not charged either Barcena with a crime, but Townsley said both will be staying home for the upcoming presidential elections.
“I’m not in the practice of terminating experienced poll workers without cause, but I do understand the importance of voter perception,” she said. “They will complete our poll worker training as they have been scheduled to, but they will be placed on a standby status until I receive information that they are or are not involved in any ongoing investigation.”