Forget Nov. 1. The election in Hialeah starts today.
That's when absentee voters will begin to get their ballots in their mail. Then, they'll each probably get a phone call from one campaign or the other to ask if they received their absentee ballot and if they know what to do with it -- or maybe want help to fill it out, wink wink. They will likely have someone offer a free postage stamp or -- and here's the clincher -- volunteer to take it for them to the the next mailbox or post office. Seniors who live in public housing might have already been "prepped" for the ballot drop. There could be a collection by a "coordinator" in the comedor. Or one of the resident neighbors who -- for pay or for passion -- "helps" fill in the bubbles and then bundles them for one or the other campaign. Or one of the office secretaries, who has the power to make a resident's life miserable all year long, might collect them door to door. We've heard all the stories. Some people have even reported having their ballots stolen out of their very mailboxes.
Because it's an easily maniputable process -- and even lends itself to downright destruction of and tampering with ballots (read: theft of votes) -- ABs have become increasingly popular and easier to abuse in Florida over the years as lawmakers (who stand much to gain or lose) make changes that weaken the checks and balances. It has created a cottage industry of "ballot brokers" who charge thousands or tens of thousands to, first, drive absentee ballot requests and, then, make sure they are reaped when its time to harvest -- before the other farmers come around. The queen broker is Sasha Tirador, who I've seen and heard from way too much lately but who cannot be ignored as the ABs hit the street in Hialeah. Tirador has been the queen for quite a while on the ABs, especially in the City of Retrogress. She has long been suspected of using unscrupulous and even illicit methods and was investigated by the State Attorney's Office for absentee voter fraud after the 2008 congressional race where former Mayor Raul Martinez lost to former U.S. Respresenatative Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Tirador, who is now working for alcaldito Carlos Hernandez and his slate of incumbents-minus-one-plus-one, worked for Diaz-Balart, who, las malas lenguas say, is silently supporting former State Sen. Rudy Garcia in the mayoral race (he certainly can't support Hernandez after the former council president publicly backed Martinez in the congressional race). Despite telling me once a few weeks ago that she would show me the AB ropes, Ladra highly doubts now that Tirador was sincere. She's dishonest about everything (more on that later). But not about the voter fraud inquiry -- since she declined to give a voluntary statement. And no wonder. Prosecutors found widespread evidence that absentee ballot fraud had ocurred, but chickened out, er, I mean decided not to press charges against anybody because it would be difficult to prove. Tirador's rotten reign may be ending, however, as shown in the last couple of elections where she has run her machine. After handing handy victories in 2009 -- where former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina got 9,147 of the 9,756 absentee votes, practically tripling his his 3,280 AB votes in 2005 -- she worked for the failed state rep bid by former Farm Bureau chief Katie Edwards, who is now running for a state house seat in Broward. Then stumped for current Hialeah council candidate Frank Lago when he ran for state rep, but many say she wasn't really trying since her main boss, Robaina, was apparently supporting Jose Oliva, who did win (Rep. District 110). She lost Robaina's bid for county mayor, but while he won in ABs, he only got a little more than 1,000 over Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. But there is no denying that the ABs have become crucial. In the June 28 race, more people voted absentee (81,355) than on Election Day (79,802). The difference came in the early voting numbers (39,595) where Gimenez had a wider lead. One could argue that Hernandez and his henchmen, including Tirador, count on most of Hialeah's 9,000+ AB votes marked for their master/mentor Robaina in June.
While they may deny it -- or disguise it with words like "get out the vote" -- the other two mayoral campaigns, and their respective slates or lack thereof, have some kind of absentee ballot strategy (Ladra does not count George Castro because there is enough she can't get to already). The AB plan could be intricately detailed and complicated -- as in city employee drivers who shuttle little old ladies to a series of assisted living facilities where residents can't tell you what day of the week it is but will "sign" absentee ballots -- or as simple as just calling AB voters to remind them of their committment or a candidate's platform or position. Armies of volunteers (and, in some cases, perhaps paid ballot brokers) will fan out across the city to ensure that the ABs they have counted as their supporters are safely delivered first -- before they get snatched up by another campaign.
"This is vital, because nowadays, you can win or lose an election by absentee votes," Martinez said as he spoke to about 100 supporters and volunteers Monday night, careful to stress the importance of getting the ABs that they believe are for his team without touching or carrying any ballots. "Under no circumstances are you to mark the ballot," he said slowly. "'If you want me to do it, the answer is no. But I can tell you who I support and why.'" On the other hand, the absentee ballots are not counted if filled out improperly. "That's the kind of help we can offer," Martinez told them. "Don't take that ballot. The voter has to go and put it in the mail." The city's firefighters, who spearheaded a voter fraud prevention campaign during the mayoral election (maybe that's why Gimenez's lead was a scant 1,000 instead of 3,000+) and have already been going around promoting the union-endorsed Martinez, will carry stamps and wheelchairs to make it easier for people to vote by mail, but have been instructed not to take any ballots and to only offer their choices if asked. And absolutely no ballots are to be brought back to the campaign headquarters. "I don't want any ballots here. They will say you are a ballot broker," Martinez said, because in Hialeah you kinda have to make it clear to any over-zealous supporters. "We have to remind them not to give the ballot over to anyone."
Martinez told Ladra he had never done an AB campaign before and while I want to believe him, he would either have to be (a) very new at this or (b) very bad at it -- and he is (c) something else. What I do believe is that the Dark Prince won't try anything now. "The eyes are always going to be on me," he said. "They are going to be watching to see what we do, to see what Raul Martinez does." He's right. We already know that he is being watched by internal affairs. At least sometimes. Ladra is sure she is in some of the pictures. After all, if he lets me in to hear his AB team rah speech, I'm staying. (More on that later). But what he means is that they are always going to be watching, waiting for him to make a wrong move. He has to be more careful than most. And so does anyone around him.
"None of us want to win if any of you get in trouble," Martinez told an adoring crowd that listened, mostly standing, for half an hour. "It would not be pleasant to be sitting up there and have one of you behind bars."
Ladra's not sure he has much to worry about. The state attorney's office has known about voter fraud for years and, it seems to this dog, it would be easy to stop if they got people on the inside or simply put some surveillance on the usual suspects -- names that always come up no matter who Ladra talks to about AB harvesting -- and make a real dent in this detriment to democracy. What are they waiting for?