TALLAHASSEE -- Charges of absentee-ballot fraud at assisted-living facilities and nursing homes are at the center of Rep. John Patrick Julien’s legal challenge to the results of the District 107 primary race for the Florida House.
Julien, D-North Miami, who lost a razor-thin Democratic primary to Miami Gardens Rep. Barbara Watson last month, filed a court complaint Tuesday challenging the results of the race. After a recount, Watson won with 50.06 percent of the vote — a 13-vote edge.
The court complaint, filed in Leon County, alleges that several absentee ballots tied to a North Miami nursing home may have been cast fraudulently. It highlights a political consultant who advertised herself as “The Queen of Absentee Ballots” and a woman who appeared on Haitian Creole radio, warning absentee voters to consult with “teacher Carline” before filling out their ballots.
“We have meticulously researched the facts in this case and have very good evidence that the fraud in the District 107 is concentrated in ALFs and nursing homes,” said Juan-Carlos Planas, an attorney for Julien and a former Republican legislator.
The 15-page court complaint points out that Julien had more votes on Election Day, but lost the absentee-ballot vote, often in precincts where he won non-absentee votes by large margins.
Sixteen absentee ballots came from Claridge House, a North Miami nursing home implicated in the complaint.
“Upon information and belief, many of the resident voters of the respective medical facilities in precincts 123 and 130 did not actually cast their own absentee ballots and/or had their right to vote stolen from them through fraud and deceit,” Planas wrote in the complaint.
Menashe Sapirman, an administrator at Claridge House, said the facility is home to several infirm patients, but does not organize any absentee-voting initiatives. He did say, however, that the nursing home has an open visitation policy that could be taken advantage of by fraudsters or so-called “ballot brokers.”
“It’s the resident’s right to have visitors,” he said. “We don’t screen visitors unless the resident asks us to.”
State law requires people to fill out their own absentee ballots, although there are exceptions for people with disabilities. Julien is alleging that several votes tied to the Claridge House nursing home and other healthcare facilities may have been improperly or fraudulently cast.
The complaint aims to have those votes thrown out, a move that could swing the race back to Julien’s favor.
The Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections, who is named in the complaint, did not respond to a request for comment.
The complaint did not specifically make a direct connection between ballot brokers and the allegedly tainted vote.
Julien said he was approached by a woman named Noucelie Josna, who called herself the “Queen of Absentee Ballots” and offered to collect absentee votes for his campaign. Julien said he refused Josna’s offer, despite her threat to work for his opponent.
Watson said last month that Josna did not approach her with such an offer. Her campaign did pay Josna a few thousand dollars for “canvassing” efforts, according to spending records.
Watson said she believes absentee-ballot fraud is not a major problem in her district.
The complaint does not spell out how a radio announcement allegedly playing on Haitian Creole radio is connected to the Julien-Watson race.
“When you received those absentee ballots at home, don’t let anyone take them!” an English translation of the Creole radio spot reads. “You must consult with someone you trust, or consult teacher Carline. She’ll help you understand what’s on the ballot in order to vote correctly.”
District 107, which covers a mostly urban section of North Miami-Dade, is home to a large Haitian population.
Watson and Julien, both freshmen Democrats, were drawn into the same district during this year’s redistricting process that pitted a handful of incumbents into the same districts because of redrawn legislative maps.
By winning the primary, Watson will likely win the seat in November because she has only write-in opponents. But the court challenge could block Watson’s route back to the Florida House.
Planas is also involved in challenging a close Democratic primary Senate race between Reps. Mack Bernard of West Palm Beach and Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth. That race was decided by only 17 votes, and potential absentee ballot issues have emerged there, too.
The Watson-Julien match-up was only one of three recounts ordered by the Florida Division of Elections following primaries.
Absentee voting has come under increased scrutiny in Miami-Dade, as police and prosecutors pursue a vote-fraud probe that has led to the arrest of boleteros, or ballot brokers, accused of collecting absentee ballots from voters and, in some cases, fraudulently manipulating the votes. Absentee ballots accounted for more than one-third of all the ballots cast in Miami-Dade.