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 rivals 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.
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 voters 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.