Over the past few days, Miami Springs voters have received a flier urging them to vote by mail in the city's election on Tuesday. It includes a request form for an absentee ballot and an official-looking envelope. But the P.O. box on the envelope doesn't correspond to the county's department of elections. Instead, it belongs to a private company owned by Miami Springs Mayor Zavier Garcia.
Garcia's opponent calls the fliers "misleading." Garcia, however, says that he has done nothing wrong and that his critics are just trying to smear him ahead of the April 2 election.
"This is standard practice," the mayor says of the flier. "It is allowed by Miami-Dade elections 100 percent."
Indeed, Joseph Centorino, executive director of Miami-Dade County's Ethics Commission, says there's no prohibition to candidates' recruiting voter registrations.
"There is no legal prohibition to what [Garcia] is doing," Centorino tells Riptide. "Granted, we are not promoting that people do this. People should think twice about whether they want to entrust a political campaign with information like this."
"Some people may criticize it... but it is not an illegal procedure," he concludes.
Garcia is running for reelection against Miami Springs councilwoman Jennifer Ator. Legal or not, she believes Garcia's fliers are misleading.
"If you're an average citizen, you would think that you were asking elections officials for an absentee ballot," she says. "But no. You're asking him [Garcia] for an absentee ballot... He is going to take those down [to the elections department], but that's not what it's about. It's about culling information."
Local gadfly Jim Llwellyn filed a complaint with Centerino over the mailers. "It would be pretty easy for him to take a ballot request and throw it in the trash if Garcia thinks the person is a Democrat," says Llwellyn. "It's ripe for manipulation, even if it doesn't cross the legal line."
Garcia counters that collecting the requests allows him to catch mistakes that the elections department might not, meaning that more -- not less -- people receive their absentee ballots in time to vote.
The mayor and his political consultant, David Custin, both say Ator is trying to smear Garcia.
"This is a time-tested tactic in political campaigns: File a frivolous complaint against your opponent just to drag their name through the mud before the election," says Custin. He says the vast majority of campaigns in Dade work to increase turnout by collecting voter registrations. The tactic is particularly important for an incumbent like Garcia soon after the absentee ballot rolls have been purged.
"Obama's campaign got registrations this same way," Custin says. "This complaint has zero merit."
But Ator says the fliers are just the latest example of the "smoke and mirrors" Garcia employs to stay in office.
"He's the greatest campaigner in the world," she says. "Politics is what he does for a living."
Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He has also written for the New York Times, Newsweek, the Atlantic, Chicago Magazine, Village Voice, the New York Daily News, and VQR. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.