Absentee Minded

You open your mailbox one afternoon after a hard day at the office this past August and pull out your junk mail and maybe a copy of a magazine that you subscribe to but never read. Amid the refuse is a large envelope that turns out to be campaign literature from Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a candidate in Miami-Dade's August 31 primary election. Being the political junkie that you are, you look it over. "It is a privilege that many deny. It is one of the ways to exercise our freedom. It is simple, important, and powerful. It is the right to vote," the brochure proclaims in Spanish. There is a card with boxes that can be checked to order Diaz de la Portilla signs, to volunteer, to get a ride to the polls, to donate one dollar, five dollars, or more dollars to Miguelito's campaign. Forget that. But another form catches your attention: it asks if you want to receive an absentee ballot.

What? Politicians involved with processing absentee ballots? You wonder if maybe that should be the exclusive purview of the Miami-Dade Elections Department. Being naturally suspicious -- aside from the fact that you live in a metropolis where the practice of absentee voting is so deeply entrenched that even dead people do it -- you decide to fill out the absentee ballot order form. Besides, you've been very busy lately and absentee voting could make your hectic two-for-Tuesday a little less so. You put the form in the envelope preaddressed to the Diaz de la Portilla campaign and send it off.

A couple of days later you phone elections department spokesman Seth Kaplan. Are politicians and their people really allowed to deal with absentee ballots? Not exactly. Campaigns are allowed to receive requests and send them to the elections department, Kaplan explains. It is the elections department's Absentee Ballots Office that actually sends them out and keeps track of who gets them.

Sure enough, about a week later, a big envelope containing the August 31 ballot arrives in your mailbox. You feel the thrill of voter empowerment, you go inside your apartment, read the ballot over, and put it down on the dining table that doubles as a staging area for unpaid bills, unread magazines, and other minutiae delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. And there it remains, untouched, for the next several days, because you are so busy -- working yourself to the bone by day and doing anything but filling out your absentee ballot by night. Besides, you still haven't figured out whether it's time to defrock any of those judges up for re-election, and that's going to take some research.

In fact, come election day, the ballot is buried somewhere on the dining table. You shrug and drive over to the North Shore branch of the Miami-Dade public library at Collins Avenue and 75th Street. You breeze inside, happy that there are no lines, and hand your voter ID card and driver's license to an old man sitting behind the table handling the big book containing the L-Z part of the Precinct 13 voter registration list. "Where's the rest of it?" he grumbles, referring to the half of your voter ID card indicating your precinct and legislative and congressional districts, and which you apparently tore off along the perforated line. "To make sure what precinct you vote in," he adds. You tell him you know this is your precinct because you've voted right here before. He signs you in and you vote.

As it turns out, Diaz de la Portilla's efforts to rumba the absentee vote did not get him into the runoff. But over the next few days, with the November 2 election on the horizon, you get this nagging feeling about your unused absentee ballot. So you call Kaplan again and ask him what is supposed to happen when you end up not using your absentee ballot and instead try to vote at the polling station. Well, he says, the voter register for Precinct 13 should indicate whether you have received an absentee ballot. Before letting you vote, he notes, the poll worker who signs you in should call election headquarters and determine whether the department's absentee ballot section received an absentee ballot from you.

But the poll worker who checked you in didn't say anything about your absentee ballot. "That one I haven't heard complaints about," Kaplan confesses, then gets all spokesmanlike. "In the majority of cases everything goes well.... The poll workers are human beings.... Certainly we do everything in our training to make sure the poll workers follow the procedures.... It's helpful to hear about everything that goes wrong."

You are not reassured, but thank him for the spin anyway, and busy yourself with less noble pursuits. But a couple of days later it hits you. What if you had sent in your absentee ballot, gone to the North Shore public library, and voted again? What would happen then? What if a bunch of people did that, not just in your precinct but in the 998 other precincts as well? What if you had stumbled upon a scheme involving hundreds, even thousands, of people who voted early and then voted again?

So you call up Kaplan again and set up an appointment to drive way the hell out to the elections department's new digs in Doral and check out the voter register for Precinct 13. You sit down in Kaplan's office and start going through the register -- a stack of about two hundred pages, with spreadsheet columns from left to right containing each registered voter's name, voter ID number, and party affiliation. One column is for the poll worker's initial and the far right column you figure out is for absentee ballot information. Some entries contain "absentee ballot mailed/issued" in small black type; others "absentee ballot returned/voted." You notice others with "ABSENT" or "AB RETURNED" stamped in red ink. The vast majority are blank. In fact it looks like the vast majority of registered voters didn't vote at all.

You turn the pages rapidly and find your name, between Leocadio Nicot and Elisa Nieves, a couple of 61-year-olds who the register indicates didn't vote or receive absentee ballots. You are comforted to see that, in fact, you did vote. But the far right column is blank, indicating that you did not receive an absentee ballot. Even though you did.

You end up going through the whole list of 2163 registered voters in Precinct 13. According to the list, 29 of them sent in absentee ballots. Another 107 received absentee ballots but did not use them; 9 of them voted in person. You would be the tenth, if only the clerks at the Absentee Ballot Office had indicated that you had received an absentee ballot.

But how many of you were there? If there were just one per precinct, and you all decided to vote twice, that would be an extra 999 votes for your candidate. You're no math whiz, but you can figure out that this kind of glitch could open the door to a lot more extra votes. Five per district would result in about 5000 extra votes (plenty to avoid another Florida cliffhanger like the Bush-Gore contest four years ago). So how would you find out if you were an isolated incident in Precinct 13, or there was some kind of organized voter fraud? Kaplan, the elections department spokesman, says you'd have to sift through all 37,228 absentee ballots that were received for the August 31 election, and crosscheck them with the names on the Precinct 13 register of people who voted in person. (About 118,500 absentee ballots have been issued for the November 2 election.)

If you really wanted to make sure your absentee balloting was airtight, however, you would perform the same exercise with the voter registers for the 998 other precincts. But you're not going to do that now. You're too busy. And with the highly volatile November 2 election looming, so is everyone at the elections department.