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A number of losing candidates in South Florida have raised accusations of absentee ballot fraud as the reason they lost the race.

Paul Crespo, candidate in District 105, has asked the state attorney to investigate what he claims are “irregularities” in the absentee voting process during the August 14 primary.

The losing candidate for property appraiser in Miami-Dade, incumbent Pedro Garcia, is also raising charges of fraud.

It’s absolutely critical that elections be run fairly and honestly, and that charges of fraud be investigated fully.  But it’s also regrettable that unsubstantiated claims of vote fraud have become part of the standard litany in American politics, undermining citizen confidence in the system.

Why am I skeptical about the cases above?

Crespo charges that there is a “major absentee ballot fraud ‘machine’ in Hialeah, FL.  What a little research reveals is that two individuals were caught filling out a grand total of three absentee ballots for other voters.

The “fraud machine” identified by Crespo is, in fact, a ballot delivery operation, where candidate supporters were collecting and delivering absentee ballots. This is a third degree felony Florida law (although legal in other states), and should be prosecuted, but this is not fraud, no matter what headline writers at local television stations and  newspapers. I guess “Woman Arrested for Illegally Transporting Ballots” is just too boring.

Even the Herald titles a recent story “Hialeah vote fraud probe mirrors 2004 case” which apparently ignoring this paragraph on pg. 4:

The investigation of the 2003 election fizzled as many vote-fraud cases do: Police could not find hard evidence that ballots were altered or voters were misled by ballot-brokers. A handwriting expert hired by Narvaez — the same expert who testified in the 1993 election contest — found little evidence of forgery.

Both Crespo and Garcia point to discrepancies in the absentee ballot totals and election-day totals as evidence of fraud.   Scholars have developed systematic tools to identify unusual patterns in ballot returns that may indicate fraud.

However, candidates are almost always wrong when they charge fraud because they “won” the election day total but “lost” the early or absentee vote.  We’ve long known that early voters are distinctly different from election day voters, and some campaigns employ different mobilization strategies.  It is not at all unusual for early and election day totals to vary across candidates.

And surely it is not at all unusual for the vote totals in Miami-Dade to differ from Broward and Collier Counties (the core of Crespo’s charge) or for vote totals in African American precincts to differ from other precincts (the core of Garcia’s charges).