The air outside Isidro Gonzalez's first-floor apartment reeks of Vicks VapoRub. The 84-year-old Cuban-American adjusts his hearing aid as he slowly shuffles through a low-rise apartment building's foyer and out to a shaded yard where a pair of frail abuelitas lean on walkers.
This Hialeah public housing isn't just where octogenarians like Gonzalez go to while away their twilight years, though.
It's also where Miami-Dade democracy goes to die.
Two months ago, this city-owned complex became the epicenter of Dade voter fraud after a boletero — or ballot collector — named Sergio "El Tío" Robaina was busted with 40 ballots belonging to infirm, easily manipulated residents. For decades, critics have accused Hialeah politicos such as Julio Robaina, Sergio's nephew, of clinging to power by bullying, bribing, and pressuring elderly voters at nursing homes to give up their absentee ballots. Indeed, residents here all know El Tío like a relative.
"I've known him ever since his nephew ran for mayor in 2005," says Gonzalez, who gave his own ballot to Robaina in August. "He's a very nice man."
The Miami Herald and Spanish-language television's coverage of the scandal — which included the arrest of another Hialeah ballot collector days earlier — has made it easy to imagine the problem is limited to immigrant-heavy neighborhoods like this one, where campaigns can easily scam or pay off poor seniors who don't speak English.
Wrong. Absentee-ballot fraud is a malignant tumor growing way beyond Hialeah, tainting races much bigger than obscure local contests. New Times has found credible allegations of fraud from Sweetwater to North Miami to North Florida and proof that politicians ranging from county Commissioner Esteban Bovo to Gov. Rick Scott have paid thousands to boleteros to deliver their wins.
It's not difficult to understand why the problem is so odious. For more than two decades, Tallahassee lawmakers have worked overtime to ensure that Florida's absentee-ballot system is among the country's easiest to scam. Worse, they've loosened rules just as absentee voting has exploded — about a third of all votes in August's primaries came via absentees. November's presidential election will likely set a new absentee record in Florida.
"Absentee-ballot voting should be called free-for-all voting," says Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, a voting rights attorney who formerly headed the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition.
The systematic fraud is mostly a one-sided game, though. In every big race, from George W. Bush's earth-shaking 2000 win to Scott's gubernatorial victory, the GOP has crushed Democrats in absentee votes. Scores of local Republicans, meanwhile, have been tied to boleteros, including Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, property appraiser-elect Carlos Lopez-Cantera, and state Reps. Manny Diaz Jr., Eddy Gonzalez, and Jose Oliva.
Come November, when a wire-tight presidential race could come down to Florida's crucial electoral votes, the state's GOP machine will do everything possible to make sure Mitt Romney has a chance — legit or not.
"We have a long history of one party controlling all levels of government, especially elections," says Bob Jarvis, an ethics professor at Nova Southeastern University's law school. "Now we are seeing Republicans doing the same thing that Southern Democrats did during the Jim Crow era to make sure they stay in power."
From purposely weak laws to partisan shenanigans to toothless prosecutors, here are five big reasons why absentee-ballot fraud will spoil November's election for President Obama.
History Repeats Itself
At first, the idea was simple: Voters who can't make it to the polls on Election Day should still have a chance to cast their ballots. As that noble goal has ballooned to include pretty much anyone who can vote, though, frauds have noticed it's the perfect tool for stealing elections.
It's so convenient, in fact, that this summer's boletero scandal is the third major absentee-fraud boondoggle to rock Miami-Dade in the past two decades. Twice before, a major election was overturned, reformers huffed and puffed, and absolutely nothing changed.
"It seems we keep being haunted by our past," Jarvis says.
In Florida, absentee ballots first appeared during the Civil War, while the state was fighting for the Confederacy. For decades, the option was almost entirely confined to military personnel, Jarvis says. Then, in the 1960s — as graying retirees began flocking to the Sunshine State — lawmakers allowed elderly residents to vote from their living rooms. By 2002, any registered voter could receive an absentee ballot. And just about anyone could pick up the ballots on behalf of voters and deliver them to elections offices.
It didn't take long to see that the system was almost tailor-made for fraud.
In 1993, Miami-Dade's first brush with shenanigans came — surprise, surprise — in Hialeah when a state representative named Nilo Juri lost a runoff in the mayoral race by 273 votes to the city's longtime overlord, Raul Martinez.
Juri immediately smelled a rat. Despite beating Martinez at the polls, he was crushed two-to-one among the 1,274 absentee ballots. He quickly filed a lawsuit.