Florida Republicans' Ballot Fraud 2012

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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.

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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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