Nothing much about Lincoln County reminds me of Hialeah. Except the elections.
About 22,000 people live in this not-so-very-prosperous chunk of southern West Virginia. Only one half of 1 percent of the population are Hispanic. About 99 percent are listed as non-Hispanic white. Like I say. No one would mistake those demographics for Hialeah’s.
Go driving out in the rural reaches of Lincoln County, you come across communities with names like Sod, Big Ugly, Fourteen, Dollie and Fry. South Florida does not come to mind.
But dig into the particulars of the latest election scandal, Lincoln County begins to sound downright tropical.
Lincoln County’s sheriff and county clerk were hauled off to federal prison three weeks ago, after pleading guilty to election fraud. A county commissioner will be sentenced in November. The three admitted manipulating their 2010 elections. They did it with absentee ballots. By altering absentee ballots and by casting fraudulent ballots for voters, some of them quite dead. Which is pretty easy to do, given that the number of names on the county voting rolls adds up to 116 percent of the number of living eligible voters.
You can’t quite say that Lincoln County election thieves do it the Hialeah way. In West Virginia, unlike Florida, where the legislature removed most of the inconveniences for committing absentee voter fraud, voters must proffer at least a reason for voting absentee. (Though death seems a pretty good excuse for why a voter can’t make it out to the polls on Election Day.)
Not long after the feds busted Lincoln County Sheriff Jerry Bowman, former county assessor Jerry Weaver announced that he was running for sheriff. That caused a bit of a ruckus, given that Weaver had been convicted for vote fraud himself in 2005 and did a year in the pokey. Hialeah, you might remember, has been known to welcome back candidates ousted in an election fraud investigation. (Weaver, citing all the fuss, has since withdrawn from the sheriff’s race.)
It seemed soooo Hialeah. But maybe it was soooo West Memphis, Ark., a majority black town in the Mississippi Delta, with a per capita income of $13,679, where a state Rep. Hudson Hallum plead guilty last month to swapping buckets of fried chicken or bottles of vodka for absentee ballots that went his way. Meanwhile, his campaign workers destroyed absentees that favored his rivals. But Hallum got greedy. Investigators noticed that in a seven-way race, he received six times more absentee votes than his closest rival. Credit his victory to cheap vodka and lax absentee ballot laws.
All this reminded me of certain neighborhoods in Hialeah and Miami, where boleteros collect fees for manipulating votes by absentee ballot. But the corrupted elections in Lincoln County and West Memphis also resembled the voting in Cudahy, a poor, immigrant town in Southern California, where an investigation this summer revealed that city elected officials had “routinely and systematically” beat back challengers by manipulating absentee ballots.
Absentees have become all too-tempting a mechanism to assure the outcome of local elections. Investigators claims that last spring, the mayor-elect of Sunland Park, a poor 96-percent Mexican-American border town in New Mexico, overcame his opponent’s two-to-one Election Day advantage with a flurry of suspicious absentees. Last year, a school board member, an election supervisor and six others were arrested in Madison County, Florida’s poorest county, on charges they fixed the election. Using, of course, absentee ballots.
Come to think of it, the boleteros haunting Hialeah’s elections are not so different than ballot brokers collecting votes in the Haitian-American neighborhoods in North Miami, North Miami Beach and Little Haiti. The Miami Herald’s Nadege Green reported that one broker even carries a business card proclaiming herself, “The queen of absentee ballots.”
“This kind of thing tends to happen where there are vulnerable people, people who can be taken advantage of by a political campaign” Joseph Centorino, director of Miami-Dade’s Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, told Green. And not just in South Florida.
For all the howls in the Republican-controlled state legislatures this year about imagined hoards of illegal voters invading the polls and committing mass election fraud, these so-called reformers didn’t do much about the actual fraud afflicting those vulnerable communities.
Instead, states like Florida have made it easier for crooks to steal elections, using absentee ballots. Corrupted absentee ballots have become the currency of election fraud in Hialeah and Little Haiti. Due to the utterly lax oversight of absentee ballots, they’re worth $20 each in Lincoln County. Or a bottle of cheap vodka in West Memphis.