Politics

Bogeyman at the ballot box

Alberto Russi, 92, celebrates the mayoral election victory by Xavier Suarez, Nov. 13, 1997, at the Malaga restaurant. Russi, a self-proclaimed vote broker, later pleaded no contest to four counts of voter fraud, and Suarez’s victory in the election was overturned.
Alberto Russi, 92, celebrates the mayoral election victory by Xavier Suarez, Nov. 13, 1997, at the Malaga restaurant. Russi, a self-proclaimed vote broker, later pleaded no contest to four counts of voter fraud, and Suarez’s victory in the election was overturned. El Nuevo Herald file photo

Florida has 12 million registered voters, but the only one named Zakee Furqan stands out.

The 42-year-old Jacksonville landscaper voted year after year until police received a complaint that he used to be Leon Nelson, who lost his right to vote when he was convicted of second-degree murder.

After Furqan left prison, he registered to vote and swore that he was not a felon, records show.

Prosecutors tried Furqan on five felony counts of voter fraud, but the case ended in a hung jury in February after six people could not agree that he broke the law.

The Furqan case illustrates that cases of voter fraud are not only rare but hard to prove. Yet the illusion of widespread cheating by voters continues to hover over democracy — like a bogeyman at the ballot box.

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This is, after all, Florida, a place still haunted by the 2000 recount with its hanging chads and headache-inducing “butterfly ballot.”

Allegations of voter fraud have already crept into the latest presidential campaign in Florida.

In Palm Beach County, the birthplace of the butterfly, Donald Trump cried fraud in the March presidential primary after some voters received ballots without his name and those of other candidates.

More than 2,500 voters showed up for the state’s closed party primary, only to discover that they were not registered to vote with a party.

Those voters forgot to check off a party on a voter application form and by law are recorded as having no party affiliation. NPA voters can vote in general elections, but not party primaries.

It wasn’t fraud. It was human error — but Palm Beach’s most famous resident cried foul.

“Dishonest early voting,” Trump tweeted to his millions of followers. “No way to run a country!”

Safeguards

The people who run elections in Florida, elected county supervisors, say the system has built-in safeguards to stop fraud, such as a photo ID law.

“Most voter fraud is stopped because of IDs and the validation process,” said Mark Andersen, supervisor in Panama City’s Bay County since 2000.

What worries supervisors is Florida’s status as a dream destination for many people. Some newcomers register to vote and stay registered in their old state, which means they could deliberately vote twice.

That’s voter fraud.

To prevent that, supervisors want Florida to join a national compact known as the Electronic Registration Information Center or ERIC, but the state refuses.

Fifteen states cross-check data so that when people change states and register to vote, a duplicate registration from the old state is flagged for review.

Don Palmer of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said Florida is the perfect state to join ERIC, with more new residents and potential new voters arriving every year than any other state.

“It’s a very transient state,” Palmer said. “Their participation in this sort of data sharing would be extremely valuable.”

ERIC claims to have found more than 3.5 million problem voters since 2013, including people who stayed on the rolls after they died, changed states or moved within a state.

Gov. Rick Scott’s chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, declined requests to discuss the subject. His spokeswoman said public records laws block Florida’s participation.

“Florida law makes certain voter information confidential, which is in turn precluded from disclosure by a state agency,” spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said.

The confidential information she cited includes a voter’s Social Security and driver’s license numbers.

However, David Becker, director of election research for Pew Charitable Trusts and an ERIC supporter, said the data is secure.

“When a state joins ERIC, they aren’t sharing it with some outside entity,” he said. “They are just sharing it, essentially, with themselves.”

ERIC doesn’t give outsiders access to state voter databases and the data is encrypted.

Notable cases

Florida has had a handful of high-profile cases of voter fraud. It happened in Miami on such a large scale that a judge dethroned the mayor and declared that an election had literally been stolen.

After rampant fraud in a 1997 race for mayor involving paid absentee ballot brokers known as boleteros, Mayor Xavier Suarez was unseated and replaced with his rival, Joe Carollo.

The Miami case is notorious in its scope.

The statewide trend is a lot less sensational.

During the past two statewide elections, Floridians cast more than 20.7 million ballots. In that period, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement brought 13 voter fraud cases.

Six ended in guilty pleas, including four convicted felons and one non-citizen who voted illegally and a worker for a political vendor who admitted filing phony voter registration forms.

A former Hendry County elections supervisor, Lucretia Strickland, pleaded no contest to using her office to tell someone how to vote.

Two cases were settled before trial. The others are pending or charges were dropped.

The FDLE’s biggest case in that period is known as the Madison Nine, in which nine people faced allegations of absentee ballot fraud in a 2011 school board race in Madison County east of Tallahassee.

Scott suspended the supervisor of elections from office after she was charged with willful neglect of duty. But one by one, every charge against every defendant was dismissed.

Court documents show that the state said “no fraud occurred.”

The Madison Nine had become the Madison None.

Study show fraud is rare

Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, spent years researching voter fraud and found little evidence that it is widespread.

“It makes absolutely no sense,” Minnite said. “There’s almost no benefit to an individual voter to commit this kind of crime. The likelihood of one vote changing the outcome of the election is very, very small.”

She said it’s more likely that a candidate would tamper with an election.

That’s what prosecutors say happened in a contest for mayor of Eatonville, near Orlando, last year.

Anthony Grant was elected mayor after getting 42 percent of the vote in a four-person race.

A grand jury indicted him in March on 22 felony counts of voter fraud, alleging that he and two others marked absentee ballots of people who didn’t live in Eatonville at the time of the election and that they intimidated voters.

Scott suspended Grant from office a day after the grand jury’s findings.

Obstacle to change

Though experts say voter fraud is very rare, that hasn’t stopped Scott’s administration from using it to resist change, a strategy that backfired.

Detzner repeatedly opposed a bill in the 2015 legislative session to give voters the option of registering online beginning in 2017.

Every supervisor of elections favored the idea, saying it would reduce the chance of fraud, but Detzner warned of “forces of evil” that could go online and disrupt elections in Florida.

Detzner’s fraud talk stirred such controversy that the Senate waited until this year to confirm him so he could keep his job.

Scott signed the online voter registration bill, and he too used the F-word.

“Fraud and identification theft issues arise whenever a new avenue for information transmittal is created,” Scott said.

Prosecuting fraud

Prosecutors seldom take allegations of voter fraud to court, but it’s not for lack of trying.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley has sent the county prosecutor three cases of people who allegedly voted in the same election in two states.

“It’s not necessarily our top priority, but it’s certainly going to be looked at,” said State Attorney Bernie McCabe for Pinellas and Pasco counties. “We would take it seriously.”

Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Christina White said any case of suspected fraud is referred to local prosecutors. But the state attorney’s office declined a request for such cases and said it doesn’t track them.

In the six months ending June 30, 2015, Detzner’s office received 29 complaints. Twenty are under review and eight were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Awaiting retrial

As for Zakee Furqan, he remains in the county jail in Jacksonville where prosecutors have charged him with two perjury counts, and State Attorney Angela Corey will retry Furqan next month.

“We take seriously a crime that strikes at the very heart of our democratic process,” said Corey’s spokeswoman, Jackelyn Barnard.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

Voter fraud in Florida

Here are notable voter fraud investigations in Florida:

1998: Massive absentee ballot fraud in a Miami mayoral race forces a judge to unseat Xavier Suarez and replace him with Joe Carollo.

2000: In a post-Miami effort to clean the voter database, Florida hires a vendor whose mistakes result in thousands of eligible voters removed from the rolls.

2011: Nine people, including school board member Abra Hill Johnson and Supervisor of Elections Jada Woods Williams, are charged with fraud in a local election in Madison County. All charges are later dismissed.

2013: Three employees of Strategic Allied Consulting, a Republican political vendor, plead guilty to submitting phony voter registration forms in Palm Beach and Duval counties.

2013: Two Hialeah absentee-ballot brokers, Deisy Cabrera and Sergio “El Tío” Robaina, plead no contest to illegally possessing more than two ballots in the 2012 Miami-Dade County mayoral election. They are sentenced to probation.

2013: Jeffrey Garcia, the chief of staff of Miami Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, pleads guilty to attempted ballot manipulation and serves 65 days in jail. He orchestrated a scheme to request absentee ballots on behalf of unsuspecting voters.

2014: For the second time, Gov. Rick Scott’s administration suspends a plan to use U.S. Homeland Security data to purge the voter rolls of non-citizens.

2015: Zakee Furqan of Jacksonville is charged with five counts of fraud for voting after his right to vote was revoked following a murder conviction. His March trial ended in a hung jury. A retrial is pending.

2016: Scott suspends Eatonville Mayor Anthony Grant after he and two others are charged with 25 counts of election fraud. The case is pending.

Source: Herald/Times research

What is voter fraud?

Examples of voter fraud under Florida law:

▪  Lying on a voter registration application

▪  Casting more than one ballot in an election

▪  Marking an absentee ballot for another person

▪  Offering something of value in exchange for a vote

▪  Preventing someone from voting

▪  Requesting an absentee ballot for another*

*Except for family member or legal guardian

Source: Florida Statutes

The Florida Voter Project

Florida has more than 12 million voters, and the state is expected to play a critical role in the 2016 presidential election. Along with its fast-growing and ever-changing electorate, Florida has been under a national microscope since the recount that decided the 2000 presidential race by 537 votes. This is part of a Times/Herald series of in-depth stories examining the state of democracy in the nation’s third most populous state.

Previous coverage

What’s behind a stunning rise in voters who are rejecting the major political parties and registering under no party affiliation (or NPA). Go to hrld.us/1I3RUua

How other states have modernized elections ... while Florida lags. Go to hrld.us/1WLulju

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