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."