Last week, New Times published images from a leaked, 150-page WhatsApp chat that included volunteers with then-Miami-Dade County Commission candidate Alex Diaz de la Portilla's campaign District 5discussing stealing and destroying ballots during the 2018 District 5 County Commission race. Diaz de la Portilla — who paid thousands of dollars to the political consultant who organized the WhatsApp chat — claims the entire story is made up and "libelous."
But while the allegations are serious, they're not a new phenomenon in Miami-Dade County. Quite the opposite in fact. The tactics outlined in the WhatsApp chat seem to be some of the oldest voting tricks in the Miami election playbook — campaigns hire boleteros to help voters "handle" their absentee ballots, and maybe those campaign workers happen to make a few votes for their opponents disappear here or there. It's been an issue in South Florida for decades, but truly came to a head after the 1997 City of Miami mayoral race, when then-Mayor Xavier Suarez was removed from office after investigators discovered all sorts of illegal votes for him. (This then ushered in the era of Mayor "Loco Joe" Carollo.)
Frankly, it can be hard to keep track of all the major politicians who've been whacked for absentee ballot fraud over the years, so here's a handy rundown to keep you up to speed.
(Tip-of-the-hat here to Miami Herald columnist Glenn Garvin, who wrote a similar timeline in 2016.)
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."
Jose Garcia-Pedrosa wanted some reassurance. Before agreeing to become Miami's new city manager last month, he took the unprecedented measure of visiting all five Miami city commissioners and asking each the same question: Will my job security be affected by the fate of Xavier Suarez?
It's a question much of Dinner Key has been asking in recent weeks. In just two months the mayor's inflammatory antics, erratic behavior, and paranoid tirades have earned him the reputation of a man coming publicly unhinged. In December the Dade State Attorney's Office placed Suarez on probation for abusing his power after he illegally demanded the resignations of Police Chief Donald Warshaw and every city department head. Suarez's campaign faces accusations of absentee ballot voter fraud that will, in all likelihood, lead to the mayor's expulsion from office next month. Indeed, virtually every political insider and legal expert interviewed for this story believes Suarez's days are numbered.
Although Garcia-Pedrosa eventually took the manager's post, it wasn't without vigorous discouragement. "I told him, 'I think you're making a big fucking mistake,'" recalls veteran Commissioner J.L. Plummer of his meeting with the manager. "'Before taking this job you should wait until February 10.'"
On February 9, Dade Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wilson, Jr., is scheduled to begin hearing Joe Carollo's protest of the November mayoral election. Then-incumbent Carollo, who lost a runoff election to Suarez, contends that Suarez would not have even forced the runoff if not for the submission of fraudulent absentee ballots in the primary.
The Miami Herald has persuasively documented that numerous absentee ballots were cast in the primary by people who live outside of the City of Miami. Some voters were unaware they had voted at all. One ballot was cast by Manuel Yip, who has been dead for four years. Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators have already arrested Suarez campaign volunteer Miguel Amador because he allegedly offered to buy three absentee ballots from undercover agents. The Dade State Attorney's Office has convened a grand jury to examine the entire election.
3. In 2012, New Times published an investigation into the ridiculous number of top candidates who've been linked to allegations of fraud, in part because state lawmakers have made fraud penalties basically toothless:
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.
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Since winning a seat on the Miami City Commission in 2009, Francis Suarez worked hard to forge his own political identity and avoid the type of absentee ballot voter fraud scandal that derailed his father's mayoral run in 1997. But now the young Cuban American Republican is in full damage control after public corruption detectives raided the home of his political campaign worker Juan Pablo Baggini.
"We're confident that once the law enforcement officials review all the information that they have gathered that they will conclude that there was no willful violation of the law," Suarez told TV news reporters at City Hall yesterday, just hours after the raid.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office is investigating Baggini after county elections workers flagged a series of 20 absentee-ballot requests made on May 29 that were linked to Baggini's computer. Suarez is running for mayor against incumbent Tomas Regalado.
Suarez insisted no one in his campaign violated campaign laws. The commissioner told reporters that he, Baggini, and other campaign staffers held an event in Brickell to reach out to younger voters and gathered permission from the 20 voters to request the absentee ballots from election officials on their behalf. Suarez said Baggini transmitted that request over his computer.
"We are confident that all of the different absentee ballot request forms were requested individually by people voluntarily and of their own volition," Suarez said.
Whether Suarez obtained permission to request those ballots is moot. It can be a third-degree felony in Florida to submit an absentee-ballot request for anyone who is not an immediate family member. It also can be a first-degree felony to use another person's confidential information online.
It's surprising that Suarez would even take a chance given what happened to his dad, current County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, in 1997. That year, a court effectively removed Xavier Suarez from the mayor's post and invalidated that election after finding massive ballot fraud by people working on Xavier's campaign. He was not implicated in the wrongdoing.
After that campaign, the Legislature passed a series of laws designed to ensure that absentee ballots — the easiest to commit voter fraud with because they're mailed in — are more secure.
Still, Suarez told reporters that the investigation into his campaign bears little resemblance to fraud that occurred in the 1997 election, when campaign workers were busted forging voter signatures, even one of a dead citizen.
On a Wednesday evening in early October, Congressman Joe Garcia strides through the empty lobby of a Key Largo community center, his black dress shoes clacking against the marble floor.
Garcia is both affable and imposing. He has a large body and a broad face, with small dark eyes set above a prominent nose. His gray curls, once an unruly mop, are styled neat and short.
For months he's been under siege over scandals related to his former campaign manager, Jeffrey Garcia (no relation), and an apparently phony candidate named Roly Arrojo. But on his way out of the building after a debate, he's in good spirits, relieved after a long day of campaigning. In the lobby he walks past an abandoned tray of roast beef sandwiches. His young spokesman, Texas native Miguel Salazar, trails behind him. Without speaking, the two men slip through the building's glass doors and into a warm South Florida night.
Three men and one woman, all neatly dressed 20-somethings, emerge through the lobby door behind the congressman's back. They hoist cell phones to eye level, aiming cameras at Garcia's face. They approach until they're threateningly close — maybe five feet from the congressman.
"Have you ever met Roly Arrojo?" heckles the boldest one, a College Republican type with short gelled hair and a plaid shirt. "Has the press asked you if you've ever met Roly Arrojo?"
Garcia and Salazar huddle close and try to ignore the heckling, but any attempt at conversation is drowned out.
"Jeff Garcia went to jail! You don't care?"
The congressman and his aide hurry toward Salazar's parked red Mini Cooper, but the four young people follow, cameras rolling.
"He's your best friend! You lived with him in Washington! You don't care that he went to jail?"
Garcia's smile is long gone. He's clearly annoyed but says nothing.
"Did your criminal defense attorney, David Markus, tell you you could not speak?" a young man provokes. "He represents criminals!"
Eventually, the hecklers retreat. "They do this all the time," Garcia says. "All the time... The idea is to get you to freak out, to say something nasty. You can't respond."
Garcia, who represents an area from Westchester to Key West, is a rare Cuban-American Democrat. After three decades in public service and two losing congressional bids, he was elected in 2012 as an honest antidote to the district's scandal-plagued Republican incumbent, David Rivera.
But now Garcia's own re-election bid has become engulfed in controversy. Last year his former campaign manager, chief of staff, and close friend, Jeffrey "No Relation" Garcia, pleaded guilty to absentee-ballot fraud during Joe Garcia's 2012 campaign. And for more than a year, federal prosecutors have also been probing claims that, in 2010, Garcia's campaign covertly funded the highly suspicious candidacy of Roly Arrojo as a way to siphon votes from Rivera.