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Arrest puts spotlight on shady world of ballot brokers

By Marc Caputo, McClatchy Newspapers –

MIAMI — For an elderly political junkie who needs money on the side, it’s the perfect job with an exotic-sounding name: Boletero. It literally means “balloteer,” but the post carries the Spanish nickname in deference to the dozens — if not scores — of paid small-time operatives who find ways to turn out or collect absentee mail-in votes in Miami-Dade.

It’s a shady world, as the case of 56-year-old Deisy Cabrera in Hialeah, Fla., shows.

Cabrera was charged Wednesday with a state felony for allegedly forging an elderly woman’s signature on an absentee ballot, and with two counts of violating a Miami-Dade County ordinance banning the possession of more than two filled-out absentee ballots.

“The ‘boleteros’ hover on the edge of the letter and spirit of the law,” said Christian Ulvert, a top state Democratic campaign consultant who has run races in Little Havana and Miami Beach.

“These boleteros in Miami Dade have become like some political consultants,” Ulvert added. “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.”

It’s a cottage industry in a county where nearly 50,000 people have already returned their mail-in ballots, out of 150,000 requests. All that for an Aug. 14 primary that consists of relatively small races and the contest for Miami-Dade mayor.

The exact number of boleteros is unclear. Consultants estimate there are as many as 100 in the county.

Many act as free agents for multiple campaigns, earning as much as $5,000 for about a month’s worth of work, consultants say. An individual campaign can pay as much as $1,000.

Cabrera offered her services to some campaigns that included hiring teams of volunteers and phone-banking services at a cost of $3,000.

Often, boleteros are elderly and have years of experience working as campaign volunteers and block-walkers. Over time, they develop relationships with senior citizens and voters in their communities, assisted-living facilities and apartment complexes.

Top boleteros — who tend to be Republican — have access to about 200 voters and as few as 30.

The more voters they say they represent, the more money they can earn from each campaign they work for — especially this year, when the Aug. 14 ballot in cities like Hialeah has as many as two-dozen candidates and questions. Boleteros can theoretically cash in on every race.

One absentee ballot can be worth hundreds of dollars depending on how many campaigns a boletero is working for. So the bigger the ballot, the bigger the payday.

Ballot brokers exist virtually everywhere, but they appear to be most common in Miami-Dade, Florida’s biggest county, which is dominated by a Cuban-American community obsessed with politics. The political culture and big money that campaigns command have created a thriving industry of consultants, ad men and boleteros.

And nowhere are boleteros as common as in the most-Cuban of Florida’s cities, Hialeah.

Big mayoral and congressional campaigns don’t need their services because the candidates are well known and have television and radio advertising budgets that can easily reach $1 million.

But down-ballot campaigns, such as judicial and city council races where candidates are relatively unknown, don’t have the money to advertise. They need people on the street.

“When it comes to the judges, it’s a beauty contest,” said David Custin, a consultant and Hialeah native who has worked for Republican and Democratic candidates.

“When it comes to a district or a race where it’s a jump ball, that’s where the boletero come into play,” Custin said. “You could have local bartering. The boletero says: ‘Be with me, I’ll put in a good word with the mayor or the councilman.’”

Like Ulvert and other consultants who spoke with McClatchy Newspapers, Custin said he doesn’t use boleteros.

“Boleteros are part of a patronage system or a shortcut or they get hired by campaigns who don’t know how to do it,” Custin said. “You don’t have to have them. People do it because they’re there.”

Florida House Republican leader Carlos Lopez Cantera, who’s running for county property appraiser, said Cabrera offered her services but he declined. He said he feels uncomfortable with ballot brokers.

“People would not solicit these services if people stopped paying for them,” he said.

Former Rep. J.C. Planas, who worked for John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, said boleteros are a dying breed — and not worth the money.

“Most of these people are snake-oil salesmen selling a campaign a bill of goods,” he said. “It’s a fraud.”

Boleteros seldom show up on campaign-finance reports, and instead operate like off-the-books subcontractors who are paid by campaign consultants in cash to get out the vote.

In some cases, a subcontractor for a campaign consultant can hire a boletero, who is therefore kept three transactions away from the campaign.

No one has admitted to employing Cabrera.

A private eye, hired by an unknown client, followed her into a building that houses the Hialeah campaign office of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has denied hiring Cabrera. She has been charged for possessing 31 voted absentee ballots over two days.

A top Gimenez consultant, lobbyist Al Lorenzo, signed an affidavit saying he didn’t hire her. Lorenzo also works for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who is facing a tough re-election, and has recused herself from the investigation of Cabrera.

Boleteros don’t work alone. They’re usually used in coordination with sophisticated absentee ballot-turnout operations.

First, campaigns target likely voters identified through database searches of the state’s voter file. They’ll call the voters and ask for their support and whether they’d like to vote early by absentee ballot.

The campaign will then send an absentee-ballot request form. Once a voter’s ballot request is processed in the state system, it can be like blood in the water that alerts the shark-like senses of aggressive campaigns. They start calling and mailing voters.

Campaigns time when absentee ballots arrive at someone’s house. At that point, campaigns dispatch boleteros to make face-to-face contact with known voters to persuade them to fill out the ballot.

Boleteros aren’t supposed to collect ballots, but sometimes voters request that they mail it for them or keep it in their possession.

Before absentee-ballot fraud marred Miami’s 1997 mayoral race, boleteros would collect boxes’ worth of absentee ballots that they’d drop off at the elections office. That ended with legislative reforms in 1998 that, among other things, limited third parties from possessing absentee ballots.

These days, “boletera” is a slur to consultants like Sasha Tirador, who was labeled “the absentee-ballot queen” by former Hialeah mayor and former congressional candidate Raul Martinez.

“He knows a phrase like that would hurt a consultant,” she said, “If you are labeled as a ‘boletera,’ it would hurt your business.”

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