More absentee voters have cast ballots in the June 28 mayoral runoff than in the May 24 primary already, with six days left for people to return them.
As of today, the Miami-Dade Elections Department reports that 75,471 absentee ballots returned of the 126,980 requested. That's almost 60 percent. And it could top 80,000 by Election Day.
That may be a bad omen for former county commissioner Carlos Gimenez because former Hialeah mayor Julio Robaina got one and a half times the AB votes in the May 24 primary and has a far more sophisticated absentee ballot machine -- and the far more experienced Sasha Tirador, AB queen of Hialeah -- working on his side.
Tirador has been the target of several election fraud investigations but has never been charged with a crime. Last year, the state attorney's public corruption office closed an investigation -- after two years -- into absentee ballot fraud in the U.S. Congress District 21 campaign of Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who also had Tirador on his AB team and who has mailed out an endorsement ad for Robaina.
While the circumstances provie amble basis forsuspicion of illegal or improper activity in connection with the handling of absentee ballots by someone associated with the Diaz-Balart campaign, any chance of proving a crime is remote," wrote Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Joseph Centorino, in the close-out memo.
Among the findings were two ballots that were apparently tampered with seemed to have originally been marked for former Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez but changed for Diaz-Balart. In the investigation, it also says someone named Carlos Hernandez (could it be the mayor? then a councilman) admitted to picking up ballots under the name Juan (he said five or six campaign workers were told to use the name Juan) and that he gave them to Tirador. Neither Tirador nor David Custin, another consultant working for Robaina who was a subject of that 2008 investigation, would voluntaily agree to give a sworn statement in the investigation.
Centorino told Ladra that it is frustrating because, while Hernandez admitted to picking up ballots (and we hear the new mayor and council members are picking up ballots in this race also), the law that prohibits people from carrying more than two ballots at a time has no penalty attached to it. He says the legislature also made prosecution of absentee ballot "brokering" more difficult when it took out the requirement of having a witness sign the envelope. Their thinking was that the elections department does not confirm the witness signature so it was not necessary. But while it was not a good tool for the elections department, it was a great tool for prosecutors who could find "witnesses" to question if the signed hundreds of envelopes.
"Do we believe that there is absentee ballot fraud happening? Absolutely," Centorino told Ladra over the telephone some days ago. "Can we prove it? That's another matter."
He's heard the stories about people who are told at voting sites that they already voted absentee even though they say they didn't. "We'll ask them, 'Is that your signature?' And they will say no. Then we ask them, 'Who's signature is it?' But they won't know. Then the investigation dies."
Well, Ladra loves transparency and justice and will provide the SAO and the Miami-Dade Police public corruption unit (which we understand are working with the FDLE on this very thing) a helping hand. Some of the people they might want to talk to include these folks:
Maria Bustamante of Kendall has already filed a complaint with police. She voted in person at her precinct. Imagine her surprise when she got a letter from the elections department the next day about an absentee ballot she never requested. It said her request was invalid because her signature did not match the one on file. She never votes absentee, she told Ladra, and never requested that absentee ballot. So somebody requested it on her behalf. Most likely, someone with one of the campaigns, which often dedicate thousands of dollars to absentee ballot drives that have increasingly become important in races.
But while there is likely some absentee ballot fraud going on countywide, it is concentrated in two main areas, Little Havana and Hialeah, according to noted pollster Dario Moreno, who says that "only about 20%" of the ABs ballots in any given election can be manipulated in one way or another. He is working with Gimenez, and sources close to that campaign tell us that their AB return rate is pretty good in the Hispanic Miami enclaves of commission district 7. In many cases, it is simply a matter of going out to public housing buildings and talking with voters, asking them or convincing them to vote for your candidate, or filling out the ballots for them. In the most egregious cases, they can take ballots from mailboxes and open them with wax paper and irons, checking the candidates marked and either changing the bubble marked if they can or shredding the ballots if they can't.
And if past history and the numbers from the May 24 election -- where some Hialeah precincts got 30 percent turnout buoyed by hundreds of absentee ballots, compared to dozens or less in other precincts -- the City of Progress is also the City of Proxies. The formula is there. Lots of elderly voters and access to them through the Hialeah Housing Authority and city's public housing units, which add up to close to 3,500 residents. And everybody talks about it like it's common knowledge.
An educational campaign by the firefighters union and media coverage on the absentee ballot concerns have some voters changing the way they do things. Some told Ladra they would not let anybody carry their ballots for them. But many are still being hoodwinked.
Eida Ramirez got the call from her flustered sister in an adjacent apartment one recent afternoon. "There was a woman there asking for her ballot. She didn't know what to do," Ramirez said. By the time Eida arrived, the woman -- "she was well dressed, elegant, thin, young" -- was inside at the dining room table, helping Bedelia Ramirez fill out her ballot. Eida thought it strange and was glad she had already filled out hers when the woman offered assitance. But she didn't hesitate when the woman offered to deliver the ballots. Both sisters, who live in a Hialeah Housing Authority building, turned their ballots over to the unknown woman.
"Was it sealed," Ladra asked. "No. At least I didn't seal it," said the elder sister, who lives in a Hialeah Housing Authority building where she has also seen ballots collected at the comedor. "They come, all the politicos, and they bring little prizes and gifts."
Ladra didn't have the heart to tell them but the Ramirez sisters have a 50/50 chance of having their vote count. Because if they went with the elegant woman's candidate, it will get to the elections department. If they went with the other guy, it probably won't. It may end up in the trash or the back seat of someone's car.
Neryda Gonzalez said she gave her ballot to Elena, the secretary of the condominium association at Los Arboles in West Hialeah. She always gives Elena her ballot. So do all her neighbors. "She does it every year. She doesn't live here but she works here and she is involved in the campaigns every year.Everybody gives her their vote," Gonzalez told Ladra. Elena Alfonso answered the phone at the condominium office. When I asked if she was the one who was taking the absentee ballots, she said yes. When I asked if she would accept them from another building, from another condominium, if someone brought them to her, she said yes. "Of course." When I asked her what she did with them, where she took them from there, she got suspicious and asked who I was. When I told her I was a journalist and blogger writing about absentee ballot fraud, she said she put a stamp on them and put them in the mail. "To help the old people that live in this building," she said, adding that she has been doing that since she started working there four or five years ago. When I reminded her that she agreed to take ballots from an unknown caller from another property, she said she did not understand me. "The viejitos come to me all the time to fax things, to fill out the discount forms for FP&L," Alfonso said. "I'm just helping them again."
Luis Martinez said someone showed up at his door with some kind of identification badge and a clip board, looking very official, like from a county department. "He had my absentee ballot with my name and everything and my mother's. But it was already filled out with the candidates chosen also and all he asked me to do was sign. I ripped it up." Ladra told him to keep the ballot should someone come by before June 28. And to call 911.
Ramona Cabrera is one of several residents at a building on West 46th Street who said Mayor Carlos Hernandez (maybe it was him from the 2008 investigation?) came personally to pick up her ballot. She said someone first called her from the city and asked if she had gotten her ballot in the mail. She told them she had and had already filled it out and was getting ready to put it in the mail. "No! Don't do that," she said they told her very excitedly. "We'll come get it and put a stamp on it." But she already put a stamp on it, she told them. "We're going to be there anyway, we can pick it up and take it to the mailbox for you."
She said that within the hour, a man who identified himself as Carlos and who she knew as the mayor, was at the door with two other city workers, picking up her ballot. A neighbor at her home at the time gave them her ballot, too.
Ladra is still out walking in Hialeah talking to more voters. I mean 2,334 absentee ballots were sent out just this week: 408 on Monday, 1,058 on Tuesday, 368 on Wednesday and 608 today.
Evidence that the absentee ballot machine is in overdrive.