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Campaign strategists say many use paid workers to transport absentee ballots

By Buddy Nevins
and Scott Wyman    South Florida Sun Sentinel    March 28 2005

The indictment of Orlando's mayor and the investigation of a Broward County commissioner this month for their use of paid workers to handle absentee ballots has veteran campaign experts puzzled.

Hiring workers to collect and deliver absentee ballots as part of a get-out-the-voter effort is commonplace in big-money campaigns, said Judy Stern, a long-time Broward campaign manager. "It's a practice that's been going on for years," Stern said. "Everybody does it."

Campaigns pay workers to collect absentee ballots despite a 1998 law that prohibits anyone from paying or being paid "for distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting, delivering or otherwise physically possessing absentee ballots."

A violation of the law is a third-degree felony, punishable by five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

It was written after a 1997 Miami mayor's race was overturned because of widespread fraud by brokers, who were hired to collect absentee ballots. Many of the ballots were found to have phony signatures or had been cast by people who didn't live in Miami.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Circuit Judge Alan Apte of Orange County and two campaign workers were the first notable indictments under the law earlier this month. Dyer said he was singled out for political reasons, a charge denied by the prosecutor's office.

Once the Dyer indictment was publicized, Broward prosecutors were called upon to investigate a complaint about Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion and his use of absentee ballots during his 2004 re-election.

Eggelletion said his campaign didn't hire anyone solely to gather absentee ballots as was done in Orlando. The campaign worker who processed absentee ballots had other jobs, like putting up signs.

The Eggelletion investigation is the first ripple effect from the Dyer indictment outside Central Florida, said David Cardwell, a former director of the state Elections Division who has represented Dyer in his 2002 contested election.

Cardwell has been surprised by prosecutors' interpretation of the law.

"This is a stretch and a twisted interpretation," Cardwell said. "People have been hiring get-out-the-vote people whose jobs are to pick up ballots and deliver ballots, and no one saw anything wrong with it."

He said candidates and campaign strategists have widely thought that they were acting legally as long as they did not pay someone for each vote collected, as happened in the Miami election scandal.

Earl Bender, the nationally known strategist hired to run the campaign to approve slot machines in South Florida earlier this month, agreed that absentee ballot efforts like those of Dyer and Eggelletion are commonplace throughout the country and help boost voter participation in elections.

But Bender's team decided not to pay people to collect and deliver absentee ballots even though it was widely done. He said he and other campaign leaders wanted to stay well within the law because they realized they would be heavily scrutinized by the news media and anti-gambling forces.

Instead, they chose a more limited strategy. They sent mailouts encouraging people to vote early along with request forms for absentee ballots and then turned those request forms into the county elections office. They also regularly obtained lists of people who had requested absentee ballots and mailed campaign literature to them.

The pro-slots campaign went so far as to warn its workers during training not to collect absentee ballots even if a voter asked them to deliver it.

"Our goal was to be as transparent as possible," Bender said. "We proceeded from an abundance of caution and went overboard to make sure we were complying with the absolute strictest interpretation of the law possible."

Jim Kane, a pollster who has been involved with South Florida and statewide campaigns for three decades, said he thought the law was meant only to forbid paying for each ballot. He said every major campaign has a paid absentee ballot effort and that there were consultants who are hired who specialize in generating absentee ballots and he doesn't expect that to change.

"There is an emphasis on absentee ballots and early voting. That's why its use has gone up," Kane said. "I would be very surprised if there is a modern campaign not using a professional absentee ballot operation."

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