Miami-Dade County’s law aimed at curbing absentee-ballot fraud has withstood a first big legal challenge.
An appeals court on Wednesday shot down the case of Hialeah’s Sergio “El Tio” Robaina, who claimed the county law was unconstitutional and unfair to elderly Hispanic voters who rely on friends to deliver their absentee ballots.
The ruling is a resounding victory for Miami-Dade County, which in 2011 passed the ordinance amid fears of growing election fraud.
Under the law, a person can only turn in two absentee ballots other than their own: one belonging to an immediate family member, and another belonging to a voter who has signed a sworn statement designating that person as responsible.
The Third District Court of Appeal issued the ruling without a written opinion, which means that Robaina will likely be unable to appeal his case to the Florida Supreme Court.
Robaina, 76, pleaded no contest in 2012 to the county ordinance violations. He agreed to serve one year of probation.
“We’re very disappointed,” one of his lawyers, Tom Cobitz, said on Wednesday. “We’re considering our options for appeal because the ordinance seems to infringe on the fundamental right to vote.”
Robaina has long admitted to collecting the ballots, but merely as a way to help elderly citizens. The probe started after authorities discovered 164 absentee ballots dropped off at a North Miami-Dade post office.
The bundle was dropped off by an aide to Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who has not been accused of wrongdoing. Robaina, the uncle of former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, has consistently shifted the blame to that aide, who later became a witness against him.
The Third DCA’s ruling comes just one week after Miami-Dade prosecutors used the ordinance to charge two Homestead men connected with a former mayoral candidate. The two men also face felony voter-fraud charges.
Authorities have increasingly scrutinized absentee-ballot fraud as the use of the ballots has skyrocketed in recent years.
In 2012, two Hialeah ballot brokers known as boleteros, Deisy Cabrera and Robaina, were arrested.
After his arrest, Robaina’s legal team had asked Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch to throw out the case, claiming the ordinance was fundamentally unfair because it applies only in Miami-Dade, while some ballots include races for state or congressional districts that stretch into neighboring counties.
But Hirsch ruled that Robaina did not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the ordinance — and also that Florida in 1885 granted Miami-Dade unique powers to legislate its own affairs.
The judge agreed with Miami-Dade county attorneys, who said absentee ballot fraud had become a “cottage industry” unique to Miami-Dade. The ordinance, the judge said, still does not prevent a Miami voter from filling out an absentee ballot and mailing it in.