Elections

Absentee ballots: Easy to cast, open to fraud

 

Turning out absentee voters has become a crucial part of campaigns, but absentee ballots are the most vulnerable to fraud.

shiaasen@MiamiHerald.com

With a relentless barrage of phone calls, mailers and targeted ads, local and statewide campaigns are now aggressively pursuing absentee voters — the most valued of voters, and the most vulnerable.

Absentee voters, who submit their ballots by mail, make up an ever-increasing share of the Florida electorate — the result of relaxed voting laws and aggressive campaign strategies. In the coming election, as many as one in four Florida voters will cast their ballots from home instead of a voting booth.

In Miami-Dade County, the share of absentee voters this fall could be even higher: Already more than 208,000 absentee ballots have been mailed to Miami-Dade voters since Oct. 5.

In the primary election in August, almost 40 percent of the votes cast in Miami-Dade were absentee. In some precincts in Hialeah and Sweetwater, as many as two-thirds of the votes were cast by mail, records show.

“If you do not work absentee ballots you will not have a successful campaign,” said political consultant Sasha Tirador, who represented several local candidates in the Aug. 14 primary.

That primary also showed the dangers of absentee voting: Miami-Dade police arrested two boleteros, or ballot-brokers, on charges of altering ballots of elderly or disabled voters. The ballot-brokers are also accused of collecting almost 200 ballots from Hialeah voters, violating a local ordinance limiting possession of multiple ballots.

Absentee-ballot fraud is nothing new, particularly in Miami-Dade, where two local elections were overturned in the 1990s because of phony and forged absentee ballots. In 1976, local elections officials tossed out piles of suspicious absentee ballots cast at Miami nursing homes.

“Absentee ballots seem to be prone to manipulation,” said Joe Centorino, director of Miami-Dade’s Ethics Commission and a former assistant state attorney who prosecuted several vote-fraud cases stemming from Miami’s tainted 1997 mayoral election. “Once those ballots go out, there’s no more control.”

But despite the recurring fraud problems, state lawmakers have repeatedly loosened the state’s absentee voting rules, making it easier to vote from home — while also making vote fraud harder to detect, critics say.

At the same time, the state has increased scrutiny of in-person voters by requiring those voters to provide photo ID at the polling place — a burden that absentee voters don’t have to bear.

“It is clearly easier to vote, with less obstacles, absentee than in person at the polls. And there’s more room for shenanigans,” said Murray Greenberg, the former Miami-Dade County Attorney who now teaches election law at the Florida International University College of Law.

In recent years, the Republican Party of Florida has aggressively promoted high absentee turnout among GOP voters. Republicans have dominated the Legislature as it has loosened absentee voting rules and cut the number of days for early voting, which tends to favor Democrats.

For candidates, absentee ballots present an alluring opportunity: Their campaigns can target these voters with mailers, ads, phone calls and at-home visits while the voters have the ballots in their hands.

Florida law now allows campaigns to track absentee ballots in real time, confirming on a daily basis who has voted and who still has a ballot at home. Campaigns pester the slackers with phone calls “until you drive them crazy,” said Dario Moreno, a campaign consultant and political science professor at Florida International University.

“Really what it is is a sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort,” Moreno said.

Real-time tracking of voters is just the opposite of what a Miami-Dade grand jury recommended after investigating problems with absentee voting in the fraud-plagued 1997 Miami mayoral race.

Election officials should send out absentee ballots using a “random timetable making it impossible for unscrupulous individuals to know when the ballots would appear in a person’s mailbox,” the grand jury said.

Costly effort

The modern quest for absentee votes begins by getting voters to sign up for absentee ballots. Campaigns often send absentee-request forms to likely stay-at-home voters, then follow-up with phone calls prodding voters to send in the requests.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez sent out 50,000 absentee-ballot request forms during his re-election campaign this summer, said Moreno, who worked on the Gimenez campaign. About 5,000 voters sent in the requests — a good rate of return, Moreno said.

But there is no guarantee the voter will cast the ballot once it is received. In the Aug. 14 primary, more than 163,000 Miami-Dade voters received absentee ballots, but less than 95,000 of those ballots were cast, records show. Past elections have shown a similar ratio.

“A lot of the requests aren’t coming from the people. It’s coming from the campaigns,” Centorino said.

Voters also may register as “permanent” absentee voters — a method promoted by the GOP. About 182,000 of Miami-Dade’s 1.2 million voters automatically receive absentee ballots in every election.

Republicans make up almost 45 percent of these permanent absentee voters — though Republicans make up only 30 percent of Miami-Dade’s registered voters. Democrats, on the other hand, account for only 37 percent of the permanent absentee voters, though they comprise 43 percent of Miami-Dade’s voters.

These voters have come to be treated as a distinct demographic group — generally older, and more heavily Hispanic. More than half of the Miami-Dade voters who received absentee ballots last week were over 60 years old.

“The AB voters have now become a sub-district within a district,” said David Custin, a longtime Miami political consultant.

Once a voter receives a ballot, the campaigning begins.

Under a 2005 state law, all local election offices must report daily which voters have received absentee ballots, and which voters have mailed them in. Candidates and political committees can then download this data every day and contact voters who have not yet voted. (Absentee request information is not a public record under Florida law; however, candidates and political committees are specifically allowed to receive this data.)

Candidates often ramp up their advertising on radio and TV to boost their profile just as ballots hit the mailboxes. And they hire groups of people to call voters to get them to vote.

“It’s old ladies calling old ladies,” Moreno said. If the voter doesn’t send back the ballot right away, the phone calls keep coming until the ballot gets mailed.

A sophisticated absentee-ballot campaign is not cheap: Moreno estimates that the Gimenez campaign spent almost $300,000 pursuing absentee votes in the countywide election.

But the investment paid off: Gimenez received 62 percent of the absentee votes in the seven-candidate race. Gimenez’s chief opponent, Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez, last week dropped a lawsuit seeking to throw out the absentee votes, saying they were tainted by the boleteros, one of whom was seen visiting a Gimenez campaign office. Gimenez has denied employing any ballot-brokers in his campaign.

The boletero arrests this summer highlighted the risks of absentee voting: If campaigns can identify who has an absentee ballot, they can also send workers to voters’ homes to influence them, or even take their ballots. This danger is most acute among older or disabled voters, or those unfamiliar with the process. Ballot-broker Deisy Cabrera, for example, is accused of filling out the ballot of an incapacitated woman in a nursing home. Police found her carrying the ballots of a dozen voters, court records show.

Over the years, prosecutors have also chased rumors of campaigns sending stooges to collect ballots from a rival’s supporters, and make the votes disappear. But because of the secrecy of the ballot, such claims are almost impossible to prosecute after the fact, Centorino said.

Changed rules

The rules of absentee voting used to be much different, as did the politics.

Decades ago, a voter in Florida could vote absentee only by demonstrating that he or she was unable to get to the polls on Election Day. Even under the tighter rules, the potential for vote fraud was apparent: In 1978, four people were arrested for paying off absentee voters in Liberty County in the Panhandle; and in 1985, a grand jury found candidates in Glades County were coercing votes from disabled voters.

But attitudes changed after a down-to-the-wire U.S. Senate race between Republican Connie Mack III and Democrat Buddy McKay in 1988. McKay received more votes at the polls — but Mack squeaked by him and won the race on the strength of absentee votes.

Lawmakers in Florida and around the country then began relaxing the absentee rules, in part to encourage more voter participation.

In 1997, the Legislature removed the strict requirements that absentee voters had to prove an actual need to vote by mail.

Just a few months later, the mayoral election in Miami between Xavier Suarez and Joe Carollo was marred by rampant voter fraud, much of it involving absentee ballots. Investigators found some dead people had voted absentee — even though these ballots were signed by witnesses confirming the votes. A judge ultimately tossed out the absentee ballots and declared Carollo the winner.

In the fallout, a Miami-Dade grand jury criticized the state elections laws at the time as too lenient, calling absentee voting “the vote fraud method of choice.”

“The present process of absentee voting, when used as a conduit for fraud, has so many flaws that no one solution exists,” the grand jury concluded in a report recommending almost two dozen reform measures — most of which were ignored.

Florida lawmakers did try to tighten up some aspects of absentee voting following the Miami debacle — limiting the number of times a person could act as a witness to an absentee vote, and requiring witnesses to confirm the last four digits of the voter’s Social Security number. But these restrictions were struck down in 1998 by the U.S. Justice Department, which said the rules violated the Voting Rights Act by suppressing minority voters.

The Legislature then went in the opposite direction. Instead of requiring multiple witnesses for absentee votes — as the Miami-Dade grand jury recommended — lawmakers in 2004 erased the witness requirement altogether. This made fraud harder to catch, critics say.

“The more requirements you remove, the easier it is to mess with,” Greenberg said.

Today, the only way to verify an absentee vote is to compare the voter’s signature with the signature on the voter’s registration card, said Carolina Lopez, a spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Elections Department.

Specially trained workers examine the signature on the absentee ballot on a split-screen monitor with the registration signature. Questionable signatures are reviewed by a second employee, and if the signature still can’t be confirmed it is reviewed a third time by the local canvassing board.

The Miami-Dade County Commission has added one additional restriction, preventing anyone from collecting more than two ballots other than his or her own. The ordinance, which includes a potential 60-day jail sentence for violators, aims to deter the ballot-brokers long known for collecting ballots in Hialeah, Sweetwater and other areas.

But many believe the door-to-door ballot-brokers are a dwindling breed, more likely to appear in smaller, local elections and primaries, where a few thousand votes can make a difference. For example, several suspected boleteros offered help to local judicial candidates, who lacked name recognition or the backing of political parties in the August election.

Centorino says he believes the county ordinance will further deter ballot-brokers, and give police a lever to investigate absentee-ballot fraud before the ballots are cast.

“I’d be surprised if you see a lot of boleteras out there,” Centorino said. “I think this was a game-changer.”

To minimize the need for ballot-brokers to deliver ballots, county commissioners also agreed last month to pay the postage costs for absentee ballots — 14 years after the Miami-Dade grand jury suggested just that.

Trevor Aaronson of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting conducted the computer analysis for this story.

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