MIAMI — Sometime within the next few days, Miami may have a new mayor.
That's the decision Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Thomas Wilson Jr. could make, after hearing testimony in this city's landmark voter-fraud trial.
Former Mayor Joe Carollo alleges that widespread absentee ballot fraud - including ballots cast in the name of felons, out-of-towners, and even dead people - cost him the election. Incumbent Carollo got more than 50 percent of the votes cast at the polling places on Nov. 4. But challenger Xavier Suarez beat him by a 2-to-1 margin among the absentee voters. Current Mayor Suarez, the defendant in this legal battle, has denied all the charges.
The trial couldn't come at a worse time for a city recently compared to a "third-world banana republic." Yet political experts in and outside of Miami have welcomed it, seeing it as a crucial awakening.
Soon after the allegations surfaced, state investigators scoured voter records and canvassed neighborhoods. Law-enforcement officials arrested those who had delivered fraudulent ballots
But far beyond the borders of this city, the Miami trial is focusing attention on the dangers of a system originally meant to help people who can't make it to the polls to vote that is more often used for the sake of convenience.
"Unless the fraud makes a difference in the outcome of an election, it doesn't get much attention," says Richard Smolka, editor of the Election and Administration Report, read by election officials across the country. He calls the Miami situation a "drastic development," particularly if fraud allegations succeed in overturning the mayoral election.
"If a jurisdiction as large as Miami can be affected by this, it will get national attention," he says.
At one time, voters had to be ill or away for business or religious reasons to vote absentee, but now "quite a few states allow just anybody who wants to" to vote absentee, says Mr. Smolka.
The past two decades have seen states liberalize their balloting procedures as part of a wider movement to remove the barriers, either for civil rights concerns or because of low turnout.
BY all accounts, voters have been taking advantage of the absentee system. But according to the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, it hasn't increased voter turnout - it has simply increased the opportunity for fraud.
"If you have a county that has 35 to 40 percent [of people voting absentee], it immediately stands out and you can detect the fraud," explains Smolka. While absentee balloting has made voting accessible to many, experts view it as the weakest link in the system. If vote fraud is going to occur, they say, it's most often attempted via absentee ballots. Voting absentee isn't supervised as in a voting booth. "It's an honor system," says Smolka.
Today, the practice of voting absentee is increasing rapidly across the US, particularly in Western states like California and Oregon, which also have the most liberal absentee-ballot procedures. In Washington State, a resident can even register as a permanent absentee voter.
Here in south Florida, the numbers are rising steadily too, says David Leahy, supervisor of elections in Miami-Dade County. In the 1995 mayoral elections for example, he says 1,705 absentee ballots were requested. By last fall's election, that number had risen to 5,000.
More and more, candidates are discovering that absentee ballots can be used to build a solid foundation, and they specifically target this group.
But in Florida with the growth, has come the potential for crime.
That was clear in 1993, when state investigators looked at the mayoral elections in nearby Hialeah. They discovered the system's flaw: the ability for a third party - often a campaign worker - to pick up and return absentee ballots. Investigators found that workers would order dozens of absentee ballots by phone and take them to nursing homes looking for willing voters.
Those election results were overturned. Although Florida changed the law saying that one person couldn't pick up more than two ballots for other voters, those changes didn't go far enough. "The election [lesson] from Hialeah was, 'It's OK to commit fraud, the worst that can happen is, we'll have another election,' " says Leahy. "We should have seen that as a wake-up call, but we fell asleep."
Things were different this time. Immediately after the November elections, the Miami-Dade attorney ordered a grand jury investigation. Its conclusion: The elections were tainted with absentee balloting fraud. There was a "concerted effort to influence absentee ballots, particularly those of elderly voters with little understanding of the absentee ballot process," according to the report. "At last the Legislature is also taking the problem seriously," explains election supervisor Leahy. "That is very needed. We couldn't operate with this cloud over our process anymore."
In this case, the judge has three options: overturn the results, call new elections, or let the results stand.