Absentee ballots played big role Tuesday in Miami-Dade elections

Absentee ballots played an outsize role in Tuesday’s primary elections, accounting for more than one-third of all the ballots cast in Miami-Dade County, and in some cases providing the margin between victory and defeat.

Take, for example, the race for Miami-Dade property appraiser, where incumbent Pedro Garcia garnered more votes on Election Day and during early voting — yet still lost the race to former state lawmaker Carlos Lopez-Cantera. The reason: Lopez-Cantera built up a lead of more than 7,700 absentee votes.

Garcia is suspicious of the disparity, and said he is considering a legal challenge to the election. “This is something that will never happen in Miami-Dade County again. I promise you,” he said.

Lopez-Cantera said his boost in absentees was the result of his campaign strategy: He said he spent most of his advertising money early in the campaign, in an effort to appeal to absentee voters long before Election Day.

“We anticipated just that, that there would be a huge absentee vote,” said Lopez-Cantera, the former Republican leader in the state House of Representatives. “That’s what we’ve been seeing as a trend in elections. So we spent our money on our messaging early.”

As for Garcia’s threats of a lawsuit, Lopez-Cantera said: “He’s grasping at whatever he can.”

Absentee voting has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks, as police and prosecutors pursue a vote-fraud probe that has led to the arrest of two Hialeah boleteros, or ballot-brokers, accused of collecting absentee ballots from voters and in some cases fraudulently manipulating the votes.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade’s election canvassing board reviewed 195 absentee ballots collected by suspected boleteros to ensure that the ballots included valid signatures of voters; all but four of the ballots were accepted as valid.

But those ballots were just a sliver of the absentee vote in Miami-Dade. More than 92,000 absentee votes were cast in Tuesday’s primary, accounting for 37 percent of the total ballots cast, according to the county’s elections department. In comparison, about 55,000 absentee ballots were cast in the August 2008 primary, making up 29 percent of the votes in that election.

Overall, less than half the votes in the primary were cast at the voting booth on Tuesday. In addition to the absentee votes, another 38,000 votes were cast during the early voting period; of the 248,496 total votes cast, just 117,591 were cast on Election Day.

The different voting methods require candidates to use different techniques to make sure their supporters get to the polls. Many political consultants have become expert at encouraging and tracking absentee voters, who are seen as reliable and predictable; campaigns will routinely help voters request their absentee ballots, and then call the voters to make sure the ballots get mailed.

Tuesday’s election tallies show how some campaigns succeeded with absentee voters.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, for example, collected 62 percent of all the absentee votes cast in the mayoral election — though Gimenez collected 54 percent of the overall vote. About 43 percent of Gimenez’s votes were cast by absentee ballot.

Absentee ballots also tilted the scales in a handful of judicial races.

Judicial candidate Robert Coppel led his opponent, Maria Elena Verde, by more than 4,500 votes in early voting and election-day ballots. But Verde had 10,000 more absentee votes than Coppel, giving her the victory. Verde could not be reached for comment.

Coppel said he hired campaign consultant Al Lorenzo to help boost his absentee ballot numbers; at Lorenzo’s suggestion, he sent a mailer to groups of voters to get them to vote absentee.

“I knew they were going to be important,” said Coppel, an assistant public defender. “I did make an effort. If I had to do it over again, maybe I would have spent even more time with the voters who are traditional absentee voters.”

Lorenzo’s name has surfaced in the recent vote-fraud probe: One of the accused boleteras, 56-year-old Deisy Cabrera, was allegedly seen with an aide to Lorenzo before her arrest. The connection forced Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle — who also hired Lorenzo as a campaign consultant — to declare a conflict of interest and turn over the Cabrera case to a special prosecutor.

Lorenzo, who also worked on the Gimenez campaign, has denied hiring Cabrera.

But success in absentees did not always guarantee victory. Judicial candidate Victor De Yurre, a former Miami city commissioner (and a Lorenzo client), received more absentee votes than his opponent, Teresa Mary Pooler, but he still lost the race by 13 percentage points.

Miami-Dade County Judge Don Cohn lost the absentees by 8,700 votes to challenger Lourdes Cambo, yet he still edged out a victory on Tuesday.

Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this story.

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