Florida Republicans' Ballot Fraud 2012

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.

During the trial, Juri's experts found hundreds of ballots that had been forged with tracing paper and erasable ink. Dozens of Martinez campaign workers pleaded the Fifth. A witness in the criminal probe described a boiler-room operation where Martinez campaign members cranked out faked absentee ballots like sweatshop sneakers.

In August 1994, Judge Sidney B. Shapiro ruled that both sides had tampered with ballots. He ordered a new election, which Martinez won. Juri decided not to appeal — mostly because his cash was tapped out. "Had I appealed, it would have cost me another $90,000," Juri says. "Meanwhile, Raul had enjoyed almost a full year as mayor. I was forced to accept the ruling."

You'd think such a major scandal — which proved that both sides had bent democracy over a table — might spark some safeguards on absentee voting. You'd be dead wrong.

The only person to get whacked over the scheme was one of Juri's workers, who admitted to forging signatures on 20 ballots and received six months of probation. Despite testimony from 70 sources, neither Martinez nor anyone from his campaign were charged. A 142-page close-out report released in 1996 by Moira Lasch, the special prosecutor, blamed state laws for making it almost impossible to get convictions.

Instead of taking Lasch's report as a starting point to stamp out fraud, the state legislature made only cosmetic changes — some of which actually made it even easier to tamper with ballots. For instance, the law reduced the number of witnesses needed to sign absentee ballots from two to one.

"The legislative intent is to promote voter registration and ease in voting," Lasch told the Miami Herald at the time. "I don't think their intent was to make it easier to prosecute."

She was right. Just a year later, a much bigger prize was tainted: the 1997 Miami mayoral election. Again, no changes came from the catastrophe.

This time, the central players were "Loco" Joe Carollo and Xavier "Mayor Loco" Suarez. When the results rolled in, Suarez — who had been out of office since 1993 — beat his opponent 53 to 46 percent. As in Hialeah, Carollo won the regular voting but was crushed two-to-one in absentee ballots.

The Miami Herald dove into the records and quickly found the kinds of problems that usually show up only in a Carl Hiaasen novel or 1930s Louisiana: Hundreds of votes had been cast by voters in other cities, voters with forged names, voters who took $10 for their ballot — even long-dead voters.

Five months after Suarez took office, a court threw out the results. Fifty-eight people in the scheme were charged, including then-Commissioner Humberto Hernandez and two of his relatives. Hernandez was removed from office and pleaded guilty to a state count of obstruction of justice.

With two catastrophic elections ruined by absentee fraud in four years, local and state officials pledged to tighten the rules.

A 1998 Miami-Dade grand jury offered some sensible changes: Limit absentee ballots to military personnel overseas, people who could prove they would be out of town, or anyone suffering from a condition preventing them from going to the polls. Use fingerprints instead of inexact signature comparisons. And make voter fraud a third-degree felony.

They were ignored.

Tallahassee lawmakers did re-institute a rule requiring two people to witness absentee votes, and they made it a crime to possess more than five ballots.

However, even those minor changes failed to stick.

In 2004, state lawmakers dropped the two-witness law and the criminal penalty. Nineteen years after getting scammed out of the mayoral seat in Hialeah, Juri says his and Carollo's cases should make it clear: As long as sitting politicians depend on fraud to win, they have no interest in fixing the system.

"If there is an election tainted by questions of fraud," he says, "then the winner shouldn't be allowed to assume office."

The Law Is Toothless

Shortly before noon on November 2, 2010, a friend dropped off Judith Thompson near the entrance of the First Baptist Church of Brownsville. Paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, the Jamaican-American rolled herself through the front glass doors and into the lobby. She followed the signs directing her to the voting booths. It was Election Day, and Thompson was excited to cast a ballot.

But when she tried to vote, a poll worker told her she had already cast an absentee ballot. She was stunned.

"I have never voted absentee in my 27 years as a U.S. citizen," Thompson recounts in a syrupy Caribbean drawl. "The poll worker said there was nothing they could do for me. I was very upset. I felt disenfranchised."

Thompson's quest to find out who stole her vote illustrates perfectly why it's criminally easy to scam Florida's system. Ever since the first absentee scandal in 1993, prosecutors have been unable to go after vote tampering. The reason is simple: The laws have always been nearly toothless, and legislators recently have ripped out the last dull incisors.

Between 1998 and 2004 — thanks to the laws passed after the Suarez scandal — it was a crime to hold more than five absentee ballots or to gather ballots in exchange for cash.

But that year, the state legislature removed all criminal penalties for collecting ballots. Blame then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who said the move made sense because he was more concerned about ballots being thrown out on a technicality than about fraud.

"Every vote should count," he said.

A tour of obvious cases of fraud that have failed in the courts since Jeb's move shows just how boneheaded that change really was:

• In 2003, Hialeah City Council candidate Adriana Narvaez received the majority of the votes on Election Day, but her opponent Eddy Gonzalez (a state rep who made the papers again this summer because one of his campaign consultants used El Tío to collect ballots) won a suspicious 73 percent of absentee votes. A year later, though, a criminal probe quickly fizzled because in the middle of the investigation, the state legislature removed all criminal penalties for ballot collecting.

• In 2005, a special prosecutor dropped fraud charges against Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer (a rare North Florida Democrat tied up in ballot high jinks), his campaign manager, and two others. Dyer had narrowly avoided a runoff in the 2004 election thanks to his overwhelming absentee margin. After investigators found they'd amassed that mountain of votes by paying ballot collectors, a grand jury indicted the four. But Marion County State Attorney Brad King soon dropped the case, claiming he couldn't prove Dyer and his cohorts tampered with ballots. Instead, they paid fines.

• In 2008, Raul Martinez, the most prominent Florida Democrat accused of absentee-ballot fraud, was back at the center of an investigation. His opponent for U.S. Congress, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, hired campaign consultant Sasha Tirador to run an absentee operation. Two voters complained they had given their ballots away after a woman claiming to be from Martinez's campaign called. When police subpoenaed the ballots, they discovered that someone had crossed out the voters' choice of Martinez and bubbled in Diaz-Balart. The ballots had been dropped off at Tirador's apartment. Sounds like an open-and-shut case, right? Not without a criminal penalty for possessing more than one ballot. The case was closed.

Thompson's story, at least, finally made local lawmakers take note. A few weeks after her vote was blatantly stolen, a friend put Thompson in touch with an Eye On Miami blogger who uses the pen name Genius of Despair.

"The elections office should have helped rectify her problem on Election Day," says the writer, who declines to give a real name. "Instead, I had to drive her down there, help her in and out of the car, and lug her wheelchair in and out of the trunk four times."

In January 2011, Miami-Dade Ethics Commission investigators looked at Thompson's ballot and two others. They found that the signatures didn't match and that fraud almost certainly occurred.

"It is likely that someone other than Ms. Thompson cast her vote by absentee ballot," investigator Karl Ross wrote in his close-out report, which also noted that her assisted-living facility was an unguarded bonanza for vote scammers.

After reading about Thompson's saga, Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebecca Sosa persuaded her colleagues to make it a criminal misdemeanor for one person to possess any ballots that don't belong to an immediate family member.

"This is the first time the law has a penalty," Sosa says. "But it's not the ultimate solution."

It's progress. But at best, Sosa's change adds some blunt wooden dentures to the toothless law. Consider: The law applies only in Miami-Dade. In Broward, Palm Beach, and Florida's 64 other counties, it is not a crime for anyone to pick up wheelbarrows full of ballots belonging to others.

There's also the question of enforcement. Sosa's reforms gave police the tool they needed to charge Sergio Robaina and another Hialeah ballot collector, Deisy Penton de Cabrera, in July. But the pair never would have been arrested if an ordinary Hialeah citizen hadn't taken matters into his own hands.

Police caught on to the pair's scheme after Eric Johnson, a Hialeah activist and the city's fire union vice president, hired a private detective named Joe Carrillo to follow Cabrera and track her collecting ballots at nursing homes. Johnson paid the detective out of sheer frustration. He'd given several leads on absentee-ballot fraud in Hialeah to state and federal officials since 2009, and the cases never went anywhere.

"All the investigators have to do is monitor the campaign offices of these politicians and follow where their workers go," Johnson says. "I shouldn't have to get a P.I. to prove votes are being stolen."

Perhaps worst of all, though, is this gap: Dade's law has no provision for punishing the people who hire the boleteros. It's the equivalent of throwing the book at hookers while letting the pimps and johns walk free.

"They are the ones who are instructing the Cabreras and the Robainas to go steal ballots," Johnson says. "It doesn't do any good to just catch the little fish."

Hialeah Isn't the Only Fraud-Ridden City

Reading daily stories about the Hialeah scandal, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's the only place where frauds plunder ballots like drunk tourists lifting towels from the Delano. But the harsh reality is that absentee-ballot fraud is corrupting democracy across the Sunshine State.

A flurry of criminal probes and lawsuits statewide shows the boletero virus runs through the I-95, I-75, and I-4 corridors:

North Miami Beach: A ballot collector named Carline Paul collected absentee ballots from ten individuals supposedly living at the Watercrest Care Center, according to a lawsuit filed by John Patrick Julien, who lost the race for District 107's house seat to Barbara Watson by only 13 votes. Julien says four of those voters were either dead or no longer residing at the nursing home. He also claims another woman, named Noucelie Josna, whose business card describes her as "the Queen of Absentee Ballots," collected fraudulent absentee ballots for Watson. (Both Paul and Josna declined to comment for this article.)

Sweetwater: Paul Crespo, who lost his bid for state representative to Carlos Trujillo in August, claims "a well-known absentee-ballot machine that is connected to important city elected officials" corrupted his race. Crespo alleges this "machine" targeted vulnerable sen—iors at six assisted-living facilities, including a house located across the street from Sweetwater City Hall. Crespo declined to name the scammers, but a political consultant who asked not to be identified says the operation is run by Councilwoman Isolina Maroño, who is also the mother of Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño. Indeed, records confirm she was paid $2,000 by Trujillo's campaign. (Isolina Maroño didn't respond to multiple messages left by New Times.)

Palm Beach County: Days before the August 14 primary, elections supervisor Susan Bucher warned voters that people falsely claiming to be her employees were offering to pick up absentee ballots. "The concern was that their ballots might not make it to us," Bucher told a TV news reporter. Then, two weeks ago, a Tallahassee judge upheld a canvassing board's rejection of 40 absentee ballots in a tight senate race between Rep. Mack Bernard and challenger Jeff Clemens, which Clemens won by just 17 votes. The ballots all bore signatures that didn't match any on file. Was the fraud connected to Bucher's warning? It's unclear.

Madison County: In this rural district east of Tallahassee, nine people, including an elections supervisor and a school board member, were charged this past August with voter fraud in a 2010 election. School board member Abra "Tina" Hill Johnson and her husband allegedly had absentee ballots mailed to them and then forged signatures to cast votes for Johnson. The couple and the seven codefendants are also accused of coercing dozens of voters.

Broward County: In March 2011, Lisa Duke allegedly turned in absentee ballots from five convicted felons without voting rights and one dead voter, all for her husband's bid for Dania Beach commissioner. Detectives spoke to a man named Joseph Burley, who told them his signature was forged. Another ex-con said someone filled out a ballot for him because he is blind. And detectives also tracked an absentee ballot to an abandoned house where a woman named Elnora Wright used to live. She voted in the March 2011 Dania Beach city election — despite being dead for a year. In all, Duke turned in 400 suspicious ballots. She told WPLG Local 10 that she had received all the ballots from "volunteers." Duke hasn't been charged with a crime.

None of these ongoing scandals should shock voters, says Jarvis.

"We have a long history of denying people the right to vote, and all kinds of chicanery at the polls continues," he says. Absentee-ballot fraud is simply the latest brand of cheating used to steal elections, Jarvis concludes. "It's the preferred method of fraud at the moment."

Absentee-Ballot Fraud Helps Republicans

If President Obama isn't already worried about Florida's vote, a glance at past presidential elections should be reason enough to start shaking in his boots.

Time and again, Republicans have destroyed Democrats in absentee ballots. And prominent Republican politicos, all the way up to Gov. Rick Scott himself, have paid boleteros for their services. Couple that with the fact that GOP lawmakers in Tally are behind the nation's loosest voting laws, and it's not hard to see where this November's election is headed.

"It will be overwhelmingly in favor of the Republicans," Rodriguez-Taseff, the voting rights attorney, says. "It certainly looks good for Romney unless the Democrats have a large turnout on Election Day. That is the best way to fight against whatever fraud is being committed."

A look at the most recent national elections shows just how thoroughly Republicans dominate absentee voting in Florida.

The most controversial race of all, the 2000 presidential election, is remembered best for the bloody-knuckle fight over hanging chads. But absentees played a much bigger role in Dubya's win. Republicans in Miami-Dade cast 24,000 absentee ballots, compared to 17,000 by Democrats. Though Al Gore beat Bush handily at the polls, the Republican nominee won the absentee vote by 58 to 41 percent.

In 2008, John McCain killed Obama in the absentee-ballot count by 30,000. The president still won Miami-Dade thanks to aggressive early-voting and Election Day turnout.

The GOP machine's absentee advantage is even more obvious in statewide races. In 2010, Rick Scott garnered 20,745 more absentee votes in Miami-Dade than his opponent, Alex Sink — a key factor in squeaking out a 1-percentage-point victory.

It's not just the Republicans' dominance that should concern Obama, though. It's also their top-to-bottom ties to ballot scammers.

Consider Scott. Since taking office, he's been keen on suppressing traditionally Democratic voting methods by placing onerous restrictions on early voting — and even eliminating voting on Sunday, a day when black churches around the state traditionally went to the polls.

He's done nothing, however, to clamp down on absentee-ballot fraud. That could have something to do with the fact that the governor himself has enlisted the help of suspected boleteros in Hialeah and Sweetwater.

In Sweetwater, Scott's 2010 campaign finance reports show he paid Isolina Maroño and three of her relatives a combined $4,500 for "contract labor." Maroño is the same woman at the center of Crespo's fraud accusations. A large number of absentee ballots went to Scott in Maroño's precincts; in one, he received 1,046 votes via absentee ballot, compared to just 440 for Sink.

Scott also paid $5,000 to Emelina Llanes, a Hialeah woman whom Johnson — the firefighter who helped bust his local boleteros this summer — claims is a well-known boletera. Llanes denies collecting absentee ballots for anybody, but records show Scott paid her $5,000 for "contract labor." (A spokeswoman for the governor declined to speak to New Times about either consultant's role in the campaign.)

Scott is not the only prominent GOP member in Florida with close ties to the absentee-ballot fraud machine. Consider Marco Rubio's famous U.S. Senate victory.

Helping Rubio cruise to a surprise win was a political consulting firm owned by Viviana Bovo, the wife of county Commissioner Esteban Bovo. She was paid $19,637 for "political strategy" and "consulting" by Rubio's campaign. But her husband's name has now surfaced in two absentee-ballot scandals.

During the criminal probe into the contested Hialeah city election in 2003, Esteban Bovo was a city councilman. One of his aides, Alfredo Llamedo, told police he'd collected 400 absentee ballots from elderly voters and delivered them to a campaign office, according to investigators. Llamedo, who denied forging any signatures, also told investigators he learned to collect absentee ballots from Sergio Robaina, AKA El Tío.

Indeed, Bovo's name has also resurfaced in the current Hialeah scandal. Robaina's arrest in July came after he dropped off ballots at Bovo's office in late July. Bovo aide Anamary Pedrosa told detectives that El Tío and other boleteros delivered 164 ballots. She later took the ballots to a nearby post office, where the documents were confiscated by detectives.

Bovo has maintained that he has never hired ballot collectors and that he was in the dark about the 164 ballots. Pedrosa resigned from his staff July 27, one day after Robaina's arrest.

Is it pure coincidence that Rubio, while paying thousands to Bovo's firm, also dominated absentee voting? The Cuban-American obliterated opponents Kendrick Meek and Charlie Crist with 78,223 absentee votes, compared to 26,533 for Meek and 25,478 for Crist.

Hialeah's resident ballot-fraud expert, Nilo Juri, certainly doesn't buy Bovo's denials. "You can't tell me that someone dumps hundreds of absentee ballots at your office and you didn't know anything about it," he says.

Scores of less prominent Republicans have also been tied up in ballot scandals.

Since Robaina's arrest, El Nuevo Herald has reported that he also worked for the campaigns of state Reps. Manny Diaz Jr., Jose Oliva, and Eddy Gonzalez.

Recently elected property appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera has also been accused of ballot fraud by challenger Pedro Garcia in a lawsuit contesting the election.

And Cabrera, the other boletera arrested in July, has been linked to county Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Detectives following Cabrera watched her visit numerous Hialeah residences, stop at Gimenez's campaign office, and then drop off 19 ballots at a post office. Despite being photographed with Cabrera, the mayor has denied knowing her and claims he never paid her for campaign work.

Add it all up and the big picture is clear: The Republican party's boletero machine is geared up to aid Mitt Romney on November 6.

"Democracy has been hijacked in Miami-Dade and the entire state," Johnson says. "I fear there is nothing we can do to stop it."

It's Really Easy to Steal Absentee Votes in Florida

In New York, all absentee voting at nursing homes is supervised by elections workers. In Oregon, handwriting experts train every official to verify ballots. In 19 other states, voters must give a verifiable reason to request an absentee ballot.

Florida does none of those things. Even worse, it's a state packed full of transplants, immigrants, and elderly residents — a population ripe to be manipulated by schemers who know voters can't speak English or have no clue about elections laws.

"We have more immigrants and people from other parts of the country in Florida than most states," Jarvis says. "You don't typically have a homogenous population like Oregon or Michigan."

In Florida, obtaining an absentee ballot is easier than renewing a driver's license. Any registered voter can request an absentee ballot by phone, email, fax, online form, or snail mail. All that's necessary is a picture ID. Voters can have the ballot mailed to their residence — or even to a random address.

Once the ballot arrives, the voter marks choices, signs it, fills out the return address on the envelope, and drops it in the mail or at the elections office. Voters can also designate someone else to request a ballot on their behalf. The Miami-Dade elections office even promotes the "convenience" of absentee voting on its website.

The gaps in that security system are large enough to drive a semitruck through. It starts with access to the online absentee-voter list — which, until recently, every campaign in the state could get; then scammers can fill out a voter's information and have the ballot mailed wherever they want. Once they have it, all that's left is forging a signature.

Of course, if the scammer doesn't want to go to the trouble of fraudulently requesting the ballot, it's easy enough to visit a compliant nursing home and manipulate dozens of gullible voters into voting their way.

Closing the loopholes wouldn't be difficult. Other states have done it. In 19 states, voters must prove they're too sick to go to the polls, out of town, or on active military service. Florida actually had a similar rule until 2002, when the legislature opened up absentee ballots to everyone. A task force by then-Governor Bush issued a report claiming, "absentee voting is now a convenient and widespread alternative means of voting."

"We need to get back to when voting by absentee was really a privilege," Sosa says. "By reducing the universe of absentee ballots, you drastically reduce the chances for fraud."

In New York, legislators looked to stop fraud at its most common source: assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. Supervisors now monitor all absentee voting to ensure no one is pressuring or stealing ballots in places like the Hialeah home where El Tío operated. Elections offices also deliver the absentee ballots directly to the homes, not by mail.

"These special restrictions have gone a long way to preventing the wholesale absentee-ballot fraud that occurs in ALFs," says Columbia Law School political science professor Nathaniel Persily, who studies election fraud.

Florida passed a similar law in the wake of the Xavier Suarez election, but federal courts ruled it was poorly written and tossed it. No one has bothered to try to resurrect it since, though the problem has only worsened.

Oregon, meanwhile, has taken an even more radical step. In 1998, voters approved an all-absentee system and legislators tightened all the safeguards on such votes. The result, according to Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Portland's Reed College, has been fairer elections.

"Before, the state's elections supervisors were essentially manning two elections," he says. "The state government figured a lot of confusion and irregularities associated with absentee-ballot fraud was the result of too many resources being placed on early voting and Election Day."

Miami-Dade's elections supervisor, ­Penelope Townsley, says she'd love to see all of those safeguards in place in Dade. Without state mandates, though, there's only so much she can do.

Before the August 14 primary, she did hire a forensic-handwriting expert to train some employees how to better recognize faked signatures. She also launched an outreach program to nursing homes to inform residents about the new law making it a misdemeanor for others to handle their ballots. A few elections supervisors monitored absentee voting at a dozen or so assisted-living facilities.

But Townsley's staff can't conduct supervised voting without permission from retirement homes.

Real change will have to start with legislators in Tallahassee. The chances of that happening before November? Nil.

Johnson, the Hialeah activist who exposed the latest rash of fraud, believes only a citizens' revolt against the GOP fraud machine could spark reform.

"To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson: When the people fear the government, we call it tyranny," he affirms. "But when the government fears the people, we call it liberty. It's time we take our country back."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.

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