Lawsuits have been filed questioning the validity of elections in Miami-Dade County. From the Miami-Dade mayor’s race to the property appraiser to one judge’s seat to various state legislative seats, the right to vote in free and fair elections has been compromised.
The culprit? The abuse of absentee ballots, with two Hialeah boleteros accused of fraud. And allegations that nursing homes, comedores and public housing for the elderly are Ground Zero.
There are federal investigations, a special prosecutor in Broward County handling the Miami-Dade mess and a Miami-Dade grand jury that will be looking at possible solutions as well.
Unfortunately, we’ve been here before. The 1993 Hialeah mayor’s race uncovered absentee ballot forgeries of disabled residents at nursing homes. In the 1997 Miami mayor’s race, The Herald turned up so many abuses, including dead people voting, that a judge tossed out the absentee ballots altogether. There have been other alleged fraud incidents from Sweetwater to North Miami.
The lawsuits seek to toss out the absentee ballots and count only the early voting and Election Day ballots, but that remedy would disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters. It’s the wrong medicine for what ails our elections system.
In the almost two decades since the Hialeah and Miami electoral fraud scandals the use of absentee ballots has moved from a rare “privilege” — to help disabled voters or those in the military or who would be traveling on the official election day — to a “right” practiced by about one-third of all county voters. Meanwhile, early voting has expanded, giving people two weeks to vote before the official day, all for the sake of giving more access and convenience to busy voters.
On Thursday, the Miami-Dade County Commission will take up a resolution by Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who wants the state to step in and return some sanity to the use of absentee ballots. It’s worth a try, but the Legislature has not shown much interest in securing the absentee votes (which lean Republican) from fraud, though, no surprise, it has meddled with early voting days and hours (those votes lean Democratic).
Consider that by 2004, the GOP-led Legislature got rid of the witness requirement for absentee ballots and opened the floodgates for anybody to use them, without the need to show a reason. This came after a 2003 Hialeah City Council election where accusations of ballot fraud were everywhere. And legislators ignored a 1998 grand jury’s recommendations to offer postage to such ballots, thereby removing any excuse for ballot runners altogether.
Last week, the Hialeah City Council (some of whose members seem to have their own conflicts associating with ballot runners) passed a resolution calling for the state and Miami-Dade County to provide prepaid mailing for voters to return their ballots. It also wants the state to stiffen penalties for ballot brokers who by county ordinance are not supposed to carry more than two ballots at a time to the post office or elections office. And it would require anyone helping a voter fill out an absentee ballot to write his or her name and address on the ballot’s return envelope. Miami Lakes passed a similar resolution.
All this attention bodes well for a get-tough approach on fraud. The point should be to ensure as many people who want to vote are able to do so and that the integrity of our democratic system is not compromised by the machinations of those who would prey on the elderly or infirm.