Two candidates in Miami-Dade County, Florida, sued to throw out more than 80,000 absentee ballots from an Aug. 14 non-partisan primary, citing a criminal investigation into whether more than 100 of the votes were collected illegally by so-called ballot brokers.
Pedro Garcia, the outgoing property appraiser who lost the election on absentee ballots while winning the election-day vote, and Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, who lost the race for county mayor, claimed in lawsuits filed against the elections supervisor and their opponents that at least some of the absentee ballots were fraudulent.
“A cadre of political campaign consultants, with their hired ‘boleteros’ or ballot brokers, regularly gather absentee ballots from the elderly, often in exchange for some renumeration,” Garcia and Martinez said in complaints filed in state court. “Residents of public housing controlled by political machines are directed to vote via absentee ballots and directed which candidates to cast their votes for.”
The Miami-Dade complaints come on top of four federal lawsuits challenging Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott’s efforts to purge voter rolls of non-citizens and the Republican-led legislature’s action to restrict early voting days. Democratic activists have claimed both measures could illegally disenfranchise minority voters who are more likely to vote Democrat.
The dispute over the Miami-Dade primary results may have exposed a weakness in Florida’s election procedures with implications for November’s presidential race, Michael Pizzi, an attorney and mayor of Miami Lakes, a small city northwest of Miami, said. Pizzi, a Republican, represented a city council candidate in 2004 in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn election results. The candidate, who won at the polls, lost when absentee votes were counted.
“If we don’t do something about all the problems with absentee voting and the documented fraud, you could have Recount Two in Florida,” he said, referring to the 2000 presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
Robert Fernandez, a lawyer for Florida state representative Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the winner of the property appraiser’s race, said the lawsuit seeks to disenfranchise more than 80,000 people because of possible defects in a handful of ballots.
A copy of the complaint was obtained from the plaintiffs’ lawyer and couldn’t be immediately confirmed in court records.
“You have all this talk of people being caught with all these absentee ballots in their possession,” Fernandez said. “Those ballots may be perfectly legal, even though it violates the Miami-Dade ordinance for someone to collect them.”
A Miami-Dade ordinance prohibits anyone from collecting more than two absentee ballots. There is no statewide law restricting ballot brokers.
Stephen Cody, the attorney for both plaintiffs, said the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that all absentee ballots have to be thrown out if fraud occurs in absentee voting. Without the votes cast against him by absentees, Martinez would have forced Carlos Gimenez, the winner of the mayor’s race, into a run-off.
Gimenez and Cantera aren’t accused of any wrongdoing in the lawsuits.
Two people have been arrested on charges they violated a Miami-Dade ordinance prohibiting anyone from possessing more than two absentee ballots.
“It might seem unfair, but the law is that fraud cannot be allowed to stand,” Cody said. “The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that absentee voting is a privilege, not a right.”
Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney who represents Gimenez, said that since that decision, the Legislature had expanded the right to absentee voting. In 1997, Coffey overturned the Miami mayoral election on the basis of fraud in absentee voting.
“Everybody is able to vote absentee simply because they want to,” Coffey said. “It’s no longer a privilege. They seek a massive disenfranchisement of close to 90,000 absentee voters based on minuscule evidence and outdated law.”
In the federal cases over voter access in Florida, the Justice Department, which filed one of the suits over the voter purge, has argued the state violated the Voting Rights Act. A federal judge in Tallahassee ruled the Justice Department case was moot when Florida stopped the purge. The other case, filed in Fort Lauderdale, has been ordered into mediation.
In the suit over early voting, a three-judge panel in Washington ruled earlier this month that the state violated the Voting Rights Act by changing elections procedures in five counties that are under federal oversight because they have a history of election discrimination.
The cases are Martinez v. Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board and Garcia v. Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board, Miami-Dade Circuit Court (Miami).