Absentee Ethics

Good thing all that vote-fraud nonsense is behind us, right? Now we can look forward to an election in which everybody votes legitimately and no candidates recruit voters from out of town, out of state, or even the Great Beyond.

Given recent results of voting shenanigans -- Xavier Suarez was thrown out of office in March and ex-Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez was tossed in the pokey last week -- certainly no aspiring officeholder would make any rash moves, especially when it comes to absentee ballots, right?

Wrong. In preparation for the September 1 primary, Republican candidates in two Florida House of Representatives races and one Miami-Dade County School Board contest have mailed out absentee ballot applications. That's nothing new; the innovation is the instructions. State Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, his brother and school board member Renier, and House contender Manuel Prieguez are offering to help voters obtain voting materials from the Miami-Dade Elections Department.

"By filling out the attached form and sending it to our offices immediately, we will help you get a ballot by mail from Dade County," the flyers read, in Spanish only.

The candidates' names are prominently displayed on each pamphlet. The absentee ballot applications are postage-paid and printed with addresses of the respective office seekers' headquarters. If campaign workers forward the forms to the elections department, the ballots would be sent directly to voters -- who would then vote and return them.

Although these direct-mail gems are legal, opponents of the three candidates decry them as unethical. Why? Because they interject campaign workers into absentee voting. In the past some candidates' flunkies -- in Miami and Hialeah -- have flouted absentee ballot laws to garner votes.

Yet those responsible for the flyers claim they are only aiding some of the voters who most need help: elderly and infirm Hispanics. The pamphlets are the brainchild of Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who wrote them for himself and the others. He is not only vice chairman of the House Committee on Election Reform, but is also a professional campaign consultant and the elder brother of Renier and younger brother of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Miguel. He has done unpaid work for many campaigns, including Humberto Hernandez's now-infamous 1997 Miami City Commission effort.

One reason Diaz de la Portilla cites for the mailers, which were sent out several weeks ago: A state election-reform law passed in May would have limited the ability of some people to vote absentee. The absentee-ballot-related aspects of that measure were overturned two weeks ago by the U.S. Justice Department.

"We mailed it to Hispanics age 65 and over, people we were afraid had been disenfranchised by the new [state election reform] law," Diaz de la Portilla says. "These mailers allow [voters] to deal with us directly. By being an intermediary, we can help someone who needs assistance." He acknowledges that "assistance" could include helping voters fill out the ballot. He emphasizes that none of the campaigns that sent out the flyers will do any of the "vote brokering" that led to the invalidation of Suarez's mayoral win.

"We don't know when they're going to get the ballots back [from the elections department]," Diaz de la Portilla points out. "And we process hundreds of these things. We'll only respond to the voters when we get a call from them [asking for help]."

Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections David Leahy confirms the mailers do not violate state statutes or Miami-Dade ordinances. They would even have been allowed under the recently voided sections of the reform bill. "The gist of what the state legislature tried to do was to get campaigns out of the absentee ballot process," Leahy says. "But there's no prohibition against having the [absentee ballot applications] returned to the candidates."

Even so, some Republicans are incensed. "Certainly it's in bad taste, after the scandals we've had in Miami-Dade County," says Marta Perez, who is opposing Renier Diaz de la Portilla in School Board District 8, which covers west Miami-Dade. "It's disquieting that, after all of this, we see this kind of tactic. They don't violate the law, but they violate the spirit of the law."

"My mother and father each received one [from Alex Diaz de la Portilla's campaign], and I didn't," says Bernie Navarro, Diaz de la Portilla's challenger for the District 115 House race (in the Westchester area). "They're targeting elderly Hispanics, and painting themselves as the official absentee ballot people."

State Rep. Luis Morse, Prieguez's opponent in House District 113 -- which includes Little Havana -- sponsored the partially overturned reform bill. His past campaigns have also distributed absentee ballot applications. "But I put the elections department address [on the mailer]," Morse says. Why not have applicants send them back to his campaign office? "Because I don't think that's ethical," he says bluntly.

State Rep. Luis Rojas, who is not up for re-election this year, is Diaz de la Portilla's partner in a recently formed political consulting company called Winning Strategies Consultants. Rojas is dismissive of opponents' complaints about the pamphlets. "People are crying foul because they didn't think of it first," he says. "It's sour grapes on their part. This is a new, aggressive, legal campaign strategy."

Questionable as these flyers might be, they seem to have spawned an even more dubious countermove. Last week postcards in Spanish began appearing in mailboxes throughout west Miami-Dade. Bearing the seal of the State of Florida, a nonexistent Tallahassee address, and the words "Alerta de Fraude" ("Fraud Alert"), they warn voters about the evils of absentee ballot fraud. The state Division of Elections sent out no such notice.

Leahy has heard about this postcard and has fielded complaints about the original Diaz de la Portilla pamphlet. "We've been getting a number of calls asking us, 'Is [the ballot application] proper? Is this legal?'" Leahy says. "We won't go into proper, but it's legal.


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