Florida Makes a Move to Rein in Voter Fraud

Latest move comes in wake of widespread absentee-ballot fraud in Miami election.

Nothing says election fraud like a ballot cast from a cemetery.

On paper, Manuel Yip seemed an active and regular voter in Miami, casting ballots four times between 1993 and 1997.

There was just one problem: He passed away five years ago.

The illegal vote made under Mr. Yip's name in 1997 is perhaps the most obvious example of what prosecutors and election officials say was a massive, well-orchestrated attempt to illegally influence the outcome of last fall's mayoral election in Miami.

Last week the Florida legislature passed an election-reform package that supporters say will make it more difficult to attempt to undermine the election process. But critics of the bill say it doesn't go far enough in outlawing the kind of partisan vote-brokering of absentee ballots that led to Miami's large-scale fraud.

The reform package has raised questions about who is the rightful mayor of Miami. And it has left many voters who cast legitimate absentee ballots complaining that their votes were stolen - not during the election by unscrupulous "vote brokers," but afterward by judges seeking to correct the election fraud.

Most of the questionable activities have been linked to campaign workers supporting the candidacy of former Mayor Xavier Suarez. There is no evidence that Mr. Suarez knew of any improper activities, but he benefited from large numbers of suspect absentee ballots.

Suarez supporters acting as "vote brokers" procured hundreds of absentee ballots and are alleged to have pressured voters to support their candidate. In other cases they allegedly bought or stole absentee votes.

The result was that in addition to at least one deceased Miami resident, votes were also cast in the last election by:

* Convicted felons barred by Florida law from voting.

* Non-residents whose absentee ballots were filed as if they were city residents.

* People who evidently cast votes in others' names.

Out of 44,000 total votes, some 5,000 absentee ballots were cast in the mayoral election.

Incumbent Mayor Joe Carollo won 49.6 percent of all votes, falling 160 votes shy of the 50 percent needed to become mayor. Instead, Mr. Carollo was forced into a runoff, which was won by his opponent Suarez.

Suarez served as mayor for several months until an appeals court in March ruled that the first mayoral election had been tainted by absentee-ballot fraud. The court disqualified all 5,000 absentee ballots and declared Carollo the winner.

Suarez is challenging the ruling in Florida's Supreme Court, which has yet to decide whether it will hear the case.

Meanwhile, a group of absentee voters who say they cast legitimate votes for Suarez have filed suit in federal court in Miami, claiming that the appeals court violated their constitutional rights by declaring their absentee votes void without first demonstrating evidence that they were guilty of fraud.

Miami attorney Thomas Spencer filed a class-action lawsuit that argues that the process of voting via absentee ballots may be a revocable privilege in Florida, but once a legitimate vote is cast - whether by absentee ballot or voting machine - it should be treated as sacrosanct under the US Constitution. Mr. Spencer argues that constitutional protections require that there be a due process procedure, including specific proof of fraud, before a ballot is voided.

Over the years Florida judges have ruled that when significant voter fraud is found in the absentee-ballot process, it is permissible to void all absentee ballots.

State elections officials defend the approach by saying that it creates a helpful deterrent to unscrupulous campaign workers who otherwise might feel the only risk to their candidate, should a voter-fraud scheme become known, would be that a new election would be ordered. The Florida Legislature's proposed reform of the state's election laws does not address the issue. Instead, that measure tightens rules on absentee voting and increases penalties for engaging in election fraud by elevating such crimes from misdemeanor to felony status. It also authorizes $4 million to help elections officials eliminate dead people and convicted felons from the voter rolls. The measure must still be signed by the governor before it becomes law.

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