Recent allegations of absentee ballot fraud in Florida have shined a light on the shadowy work of so-called "boleteros" – absentee ballot brokers who, in some cases, have been accused of cajoling, bribing and even forging the names of unsuspecting voters.
The most recent claim involves Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who hired an alleged "boletero" for his 2010 campaign. In Scott's case, the campaign claims it did nothing wrong and indeed nobody has been charged. But the claim follows the arrest of a boletero in a separate case, and coincides with a wave of coverage and attention in the Miami-Dade, Fla., area surrounding what for authorities is an illicit practice.
Boleteros -- translated roughly to mean ticket-person -- assist in collecting absentee ballots and helping primarily elderly and disabled voters in filling them out. This can be entirely lawful, but sometimes these workers walk a fine legal line.
For many boleteros, it can be a profitable enterprise – with some guaranteeing votes in exchange for money, authorities say. They are particularly prominent in heavily Republican Spanish-speaking communities, like Hialeah.
Under Florida law, it is legal to assist voters in ensuring their absentee ballots are properly mailed. But it’s illegal to influence voters, request ballots on behalf of someone else and forge signatures. The state no longer requires witness signatures on absentee ballots, officials note, and many of the boleteros will illegally “follow the ballots all through the process.”
“They’ll visit the voters, help them vote, and suggest who to vote for,” Joseph Centorino, director of Miami-Dade's Ethics Commission, told FoxNews.com. “Some of them even have had the ballots delivered to them and not to the voter.”
The practice amounts to an unregulated election-related business. The boleteros do not need to register with the state, though there is a proposal in Miami-Dade County that would require campaigns to disclose who they are hiring to handle absentee ballots. Absentee ballot voters, Centorino noted, are required to sign a written authorization if they wish to have someone else pick up their ballot and deliver it.
“This is a dirty business and unfortunately it’s become pretty common,” said Centorino, who worked for many years as head of the corruption unit of the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office.
“Some of them have been known to sell their services to the highest bidder,” he said.
Earlier this month, Miami-Dade police charged 56-year-old Deisy Penton de Cabrera with absentee ballot fraud, a third-degree felony, after she allegedly forged the name of an elderly woman at a nursing home. Authorities also claim Cabrera was found carrying at least 31 absentee ballots for a local election – a violation of a county ordinance that prohibits individuals from possessing more than two absentee ballots at a time.
Scott's campaign came under scrutiny after campaign records showed he paid a $5,000 contract fee to Hialeah resident Emelina Llanes, an accused boletera, according to press reports. Two former law enforcement officials, including former Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños, reportedly identified Llanes as a boletera to local media outlets – though the 74-year-old woman has not been charged and she denies any wrongdoing.
In an interview with FoxNews.com, Scott’s former campaign manager, Susie Wiles, said, “We like all other campaigns that I’m aware of hired independent contractors to do get-out-the-vote activities. This may have included work with absentee voters, which is legal and customary.”
While boleteros are known to step over the legal line, it is difficult to detect and prove, according to authorities.
“Absentee ballot fraud has been substantiated on a rather significant basis as contrasted with voter impersonation fraud,” said Robert Pastor, an American University professor and director of the school's Center for Democracy and Election Management.
“Absentee ballot voting is by definition open to possible fraud in that the individual who gets the ballot could be subject to either intimidation or manipulation in some fashion,” Pastor said. “This is not very easy to determine.”
J. Christian Adams, a former Department of Justice official, recalled how he litigated a 2005 absentee ballot fraud case in federal court in Mississippi. A judge ruled that Mississippi's former Noxubee County Democratic Party leader, Ike Brown, in collaboration with the Noxubee Democratic Executive Committee "manipulated the political process in ways specifically intended and designed to impair and impede participation of white voters and to dilute their votes."
“It’s sophisticated people preying on the unsophisticated,” Adams said of the “boleteros” problem. “It’s persuasive people preying on the indifferent.”
“That victim doesn’t really care as much about voting as the notary – or perpetrator … They don’t even realize that they’ve been stripped of their right to vote by a criminal.”
Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California Irvine, said lawmakers looking to crack down on such voter fraud should be "cutting back on absentee balloting" rather than implementing tough voter ID laws -- as states like Florida are doing.
But seasoned political strategists, like long-time Republican consultant Roger Stone, say the practice has only been problematic in local races.
“I really believe that absentee ballot fraud is somewhat limited to local and county offices,” said Stone, adding that he wasn’t aware of any substantial absentee ballot fraud cases at the state or congressional level.
“Most of this has centered around Hialeah. It’s a political culture that comes from the Latin world. It’s very prevalent in South America and Cuba," he said.
“If Florida really is within 1 point between Obama and Romney, and there is absentee voter fraud in this election, it could have an effect,” he continued. “But the FBI is all over Miami-Dade like a cheap suit.”
“I really think the publicity has probably put an end to the practice for the near future,” he said.