Special to Central Florida Politics By Janie Campbell of The Huffington Post |
Campaign finance reports show Florida Governor Rick Scott — who framed recent evidence-defying efforts to purge state voter rolls, limit registration and reduce early voting hours as a protection of “honest” elections — hired an alleged Miami-Dade absentee ballot broker during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Scott’s campaign paid a $5,000 “contract labor” fee to 74-year-old Hialeah resident Emelina Llanes, who was identified as a so-called boletera to the Miami Herald and by El Nuevo Herald, multiple Miami-Dade watchdog blogs, and former Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños.
The Republican Party of Florida has not responded to HuffPost’s request for comment about the campaign finance records, which indicate only that Llanes was paid by Scott’s campaign, provide no further specifics as to her services, and do not constitute evidence of any wrong-doing. Llanes previously told El Nuevo in Spanish that she does help register voters, but “I am not a boletera. I am a quiet person, in my house, and I help all I can.”
But Bolaños and another city employee told Miami New Times they saw Llanes go door-to-door at a Hialeah public housing building for the elderly during the city’s 2011 mayoral election, collecting ballots from elderly residents:
“When she came out, we approached her because we believed she was carrying ballots,” Bolaños says. “She started yelling that she was being violated and that she had chest pains.”
The ex-cop says Llanes, who allegedly had the ballots in a bag, ran into an apartment. When two Hialeah Police officers responded to the scene, they found no ballots, and Llanes denied the accusations.
Technically tasked with offering to help voters fill out ballots or ensure their votes are mailed, which is legal, boleteros have the opportunity to sway or bribe voters, change ballot selections, and forge signatures. It is illegal in Florida to possess more than two absentee ballots, but some have reportedly been spotted delivering stacks of ballots to post offices or election headquarters.
Multiple recent candidates told the Herald they were contacted by boleteros who offered to guarantee votes for money. Lourdes Cambó, who lost a judicial race, told the paper she was approached with such a proposition at a Hialeah picnic in June, when an unnamed boletera reduced her asking price three times as Cambó repeatedly declined the offer.
“It’s an insult to the democratic system,” Cambó said. “Judges have to be almost saints, and they can’t be hiring boleteros.”
Such ballot brokers are especially prevalent in highly political and Republican-heavy Cuban-American Miami-Dade communities like Llanes’ Hialeah, where boletera Deisy Cabrera was recently charged with illegally collecting 31 ballots — including one forged on behalf of an elderly woman who lay unresponsive in an assisted living facility.
The ongoing investigation has also snagged a former Hialeah mayor’s uncle, who was charged with fraud for filling out two ballots in opposition to the voters’ intentions– and with whom Llanes was allegedly engaged in a “turf war” over the Hialeah public housing building. The probe has sideswiped the offices of both a sitting county commissioner and the Miami-Dade State Attorney, who recused herself from the Cabrera case.
Lawsuits by losing candidates flew in the wake of Florida’s August primary, when absentee ballots accounted for more than one-third of all votes in Miami-Dade County.
Boleteros “hover on the edge of the letter and spirit of the law,” state Democratic campaign consultant Christian Ulvert told the Miami Herald last month. “These boleteros in Miami-Dade have become like some political consultants. You don’t want them working for you. But you don’t want them working against you. So some candidates figure you just have to pay them.”
The shady practice has become so ingrained that among Republicans, who typically benefit from Hialeah’s most prominent boleteros, there are calls for an end to the practice.
“Like many others in our community, I knew that certain well-known boleteras controlled blocs of absentee votes in Miami-Dade County mostly from elderly voters either too senile or too indifferent to care. And that these boleteras are available for hire,” wrote Paul Crespo, a losing GOP candidate for state representative, in a letter to the Miami Herald.
Crespo added that “Absentee ballot fraud is undermining the integrity of our elections…We can no longer turn a blind eye to this electoral cancer.”
But Scott has waged his voter battles where there is no evidence of widespread fraud and all but ignored the absentee ballot shenanigans that have long plagued elections in Miami-Dade, where according to New Times the governor outpaced his 2010 opponent Democrat Alex Sink by 20,745 votes despite losing election day balloting.
Scott wound up winning the election by about one percentage point.