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Absentee Ballots: The Real Voting Fraud, Part 1

October 24, 2013

Rick Scott and his minions in Tallahassee and throughout the state are mounting yet another effort to purge thousands of people from the voter rolls (a subject for another post) to solve a phantom fraud problem which they can’t demonstrate actually exists.  This is the local version of a neo-Jim-Crow Republican effort now happening in many states where the GOP controls the legislature (Virginia, Texas, and North Carolina being perhaps the most egregious examples) obviously intended to reduce voting numbers among people most likely to vote Democrat.

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled state government has shown no interest in addressing a real—and far larger—voting fraud problem, which is the rampant abuse of absentee ballots.  It seems a new absentee ballot (AB) scandal in Miami-Dade erupts in the headlines every week.  Some recent examples:

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The problem has become so pervasive that absentee ballot fraud is suspected of affecting the outcome of a number of elections.  There are numerous examples where the absentee ballot count has been so grossly out of sync with the count of ballots cast in person that the appearance of fraud is hard to overlook.  Manipulation of ABs is clearly practiced by politicians of both parties and their supporters, and it’s hard to know who are the worst abusers.

It’s not just a Miami-Dade problem either; Broward has had some similar cases, as have other parts of the state.  But in Miami-Dade, manipulation of ABs is so commonplace that the people who gather and deliver (and often fill in) the ballots have a special name:  boleteros (or boleteras, if female, as many are).

The abuse during the 2012 primary elections became so blatant that the mainstream press and law enforcement finally started paying attention.  (Two Miami-based blogs, Eye on Miami and Political Cortadito, had been doggedly exposing the problem for much longer—check their archives for chapter and verse.)  This finally created enough of a stink that a grand jury was charged with investigating the problem.

The grand jury’s report on absentee ballot fraud, which was issued in December 2012, is definitely worth reading if you’re at all interested in this issue.  It looks at the background of AB fraud, the methods employed, the consequences, and calls for specific remedies to alleviate the abuse.  Somewhat to my surprise, I found the document well-written in clear and jargon-free language and easy to understand, and the changes in the law that it proposes make a lot of sense.  (The Miami Herald summarized some of the recommendations here.)  Unfortunately, most of the recommendations require legislation changes at the state level, which has not yet happened, as far as I can tell.

Voting absentee was once just for people who, because of illness or travel, could not make it to the polls on election day.  Until the law was changed in 1997, voters had to “show cause” in order to get an absentee ballot.  Now—in Florida, at least—voting absentee is mostly a matter of convenience.  Miami-Dade County actually encourages absentee balloting, in part to reduce the outrageously long waits at polling places on election days.

In the 2012 general election, waits of 6 hours or even longer were not uncommon, adding to Florida’s reputation as a national laughing-stock for fucked-up elections.  Rick Scott and the Republicans in Tallahassee made the situation worse by cutting back on the number of early voting days, which meant that even for people voting early the lines at the limited number of polling places were unacceptably long.  This, of course, makes voting absentee even more attractive, and the use of ABs has grown so much that they often represent more than one-third of all ballots cast.

The problem is that the procedures to assure the identity of in-person voters at the polling site and make sure that they personally fill out the ballot and deposit it in the box, are largely non-existent for absentee voters, and it just isn’t that hard to get around what there is.  As the grand jury report points out, absentee voting is essentially on the “honor system”, and honor is not the first word that comes to mind when considering Miami politics.

With such a huge lode of ABs in play, and the integrity of the process so easy to pierce, it’s not surprising that unscrupulous political candidates and their campaign workers have developed methods to manipulate absentee ballots to fraudulently inflate their vote totals. And if every candidate thinks (perhaps correctly) that his opponent is doing it, responding in kind becomes awfully tempting.  It could make all the difference in a close election.

The other side of the coin is that absentee ballots are invalidated and not counted at much higher rates than ballots cast in person.  According to the grand jury report, in the 2012 general election, some 5,263 absentee ballots in Miami-Dade were rejected for “no signature”, “postmarked late”, “returned undeliverable”, “signature did not match”, or “signed by someone else”.  State-wide, some 2 percent of ABs were invalidated—a rate twice that for in-person votes.  So even if you request your own ballot, fill it out yourself, and mail it in, if you make one of these mistakes then the ballot could be thrown out and you would never know it.

More next time…

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