If the news that two Miami women were arrested on allegations of voting fraud Thursday seemed a little bit déjà vu-ish, that’s because you really had seen it before. South Florida has been humming a ballad of ballot banditry for many years. Here’s a brief scorecard of some of the most well-known cases of the past couple of decades.
▪ 1994: A state judge ruled that so many absentee ballots were cast from a retirement home housing schizophrenics and drug addicts that Hialeah’s 1993 mayoral election had to be thrown out and done over.
Raúl Martínez, who won the tainted 1993 election by a 273-vote margin (and had a 2-to-1 margin among the absentee voters) won the rerun election, too. The only criminal charges filed in connection with the case were against a campaign worker for his opponent, former state representative Nilo Juri. The worker admitted forging as many as 20 ballots.
▪ 1998: Not to be outdone by Hialeah, Miami got its own mayoral race tossed out by a judge, who ruled the 1997 race between incumbent Joe Carollo and former mayor Xavier Suarez was disfigured by “a pattern of fraudulent, intentional and criminal conduct” in absentee voting. Declared the judge: “This scheme to defraud, literally and figuratively, stole the ballot from the hands of every honest voter in the city of Miami.”
The ruling came after a two-month trial in a lawsuit filed by Carollo after Suarez won. The proceedings were like a parody of an old Mafia movie, with 27 witnesses invoking the Fifth Amendment to avoid answering questions. The judge ruled there was no evidence that Suarez knew about the fraud, but four of his campaign workers were arrested. An appeals court put Carollo back in office as mayor.
▪ 2008: A variety of hanky-panky surrounding absentee ballots in the congressional race between Raúl Martinez and incumbent Lincoln Díaz-Balart — including mysterious alchemy that apparently changed two ballots marked for Martínez into votes for Diaz-Balart — led Miami-Dade prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation.
Two years later, prosecutors threw up their hands: “While the circumstances prove ample basis for suspicion of illegal or improper activity in connection with the handling of absentee ballots by someone associated with the Diaz-Balart campaign, any chance of proving a crime is remote.”
▪ 2011: In the midst of yet another no-quarter Hialeah mayoral election, a supporter of incumbent Carlos Hernandez was spotted in an apartment building, supposedly collecting absentee ballots. When Emelina Llanes realized she was being videotaped by a cameraman trying to find evidence of voter fraud, Llanes shrieked, “They want to kill me! They want to kill me!” as she ran down a corridor banging on apartment doors.
Police were eventually called, but no ballots were found and no charges were filed.
▪ 2012: As the economy looked grim, one South Florida industry was booming: boleteros, ballot brokers, who wrangle absentee ballots by hook and sometimes crook. Police arrested three of them in unrelated cases in and around Hialeah and seized hundreds of ballots. A business card belonging to one of them was inscribed on the back, “When the ballots arrive, call me because I work all the elections.”
▪ 2013: The chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia was arrested and charged with masterminding an attempt to request nearly 2,000 absentee ballots for the 2012 primary election through the Miami-Dade elections website. Jeffrey Garcia — not related to the congressman — eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. “Jeff is a good person who made a mistake,” his lawyer explained.
▪ 2013: Like his father 15 years earlier, Miami City Commissioner Francis Suarez saw his mayoral campaign run aground on the shoals of absentee-ballot violations. Two of his campaign workers pleaded guilty to handing out leaflets at a Cinco de Mayo party offering to obtain ballots for registered voters who wanted them. But when they actually asked the county for the ballots, they broke the law — apparently, much to the surprise of the two men. “You told me this was legal,” one of the men said to another in a phone call recorded during a police raid, to which his colleague replied: “Yeah, exactly.”
▪ 2014: Two campaign workers for Mark Bell, who lost the 2013 Homestead mayoral race, were arrested and charged with falsely filling out four absentee ballots. Said 55-year-old Betty Brockington, a voter from whom one of the ballots was taken: “Oooh, golly.”