By Jane Smith
South County election mavens will be watching the role mail-in ballots play in this month’s municipal elections.
Some groups have learned how to win local elections by asking voters to use mail-in ballots and collecting them, saving voters the postage cost.
Previously called absentee ballots, the mail-in ballots were the deciding factor in three South County municipal races in the past 10 years.
Last year, in the Boynton Beach City Commission Seat 3 race, incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick thought he was headed to a runoff election. Then, after mail-in ballots were counted, newcomer Christina Romelus was the winner.
In 2015, Gail Adams Aaskov won her Ocean Ridge commission seat despite having the fewest in-person votes on Election Day. She had the highest mail-in votes at 35, making her the top vote-getter and knocking out challenger Ed Brookes. Geoff Pugh was second and secured the other open commission seat.
Al Jacquet won his 2014 Delray Beach City Commission seat by setting a record of the most mail-in votes by a commission candidate. He bested challenger Chris Davey, who had more in-person votes.
“Jacquet put a huge amount of time into the Haitian-American community,” Davey said. “It’s not unusual for a candidate to target a racial or an ethnic group they belong to.”
Born in St. Martin, Jacquet moved to Delray Beach when he was 10. He went on to become a lawyer and sit on the city’s Planning and Zoning Board. During his commission election in 2012, he won at the polls and was the leader in mail-in ballots at 318. Two years later, he collected nearly triple that number, but his votes at the polls trailed Davey’s by 429.
“I absolutely thought I would win when the poll results were counted,” said Davey, a real estate broker who has served on the city’s Planning and Zoning Board. “Most prognosticators said I won. … The absentee ballot count came in late that evening.”
Jacquet won the seat by 265 votes. He could not be reached to explain how he pulled off the stunning victory.
At the first City Commission meeting last September, Jacquet spoke out against allegations of voter fraud in his August win to be state representative. Nearly half of his votes were mail-ins.
His opponents raised questions about voter fraud in the Haitian-American neighborhoods in Delray Beach and Boynton Beach. The questions prompted Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies to show up at the doors of Haitian-American residents in Delray Beach, Jacquet said.
“Black folks are voting too much, something must be wrong,” he said sarcastically.
Davey said the signatures on the absentee ballot envelopes cannot be compared to the ones on the voter registration card during a challenge.
But Susan Bucher, Palm Beach County supervisor of elections, said they can be compared, but her office has to charge for staff time to do it. The first 30 minutes is free, but any ballot envelopes reviewed over that time would be charged $100 per hour, she said.
Vote by mail now accounts for one-third of how ballots are cast in general elections, Bucher said. The other two methods are early voting or in-person voting on Election Day.
Cities and towns have opted out of early voting, Bucher said.
The vote-by-mail application is valid for two general election cycles or four years.
Condo dwellers, church groups and Haitian-American voters use the vote-by-mail option more frequently, Bucher said. The candidates go door-to-door asking for the person’s vote, she said. The ballots have to be returned to the main elections office by 7 p.m. on Election Day, according to state law. Branch offices close at 5 p.m. on Election Day.
By state law, a person collecting ballots cannot be paid. That law was enacted in 1998 in Florida. Before then, ballot brokering was popular.
Collecting the ballots saves the voter postage. It costs about $1.21 to mail a ballot back to her office, Bucher said.
When Fitzpatrick ran for re-election in Boynton, he thought he would win as the incumbent or head to a runoff.
A retired city firefighter, he spoke in his first term of the need to reform the police and fire departments’ pension plans. The Boynton Beach Firefighters and Paramedics union then donated $1,000 to Romelus.
Fitzpatrick also said he was part of Boynton’s Sister City delegation that went to Haiti. Romelus had promised in the summer of 2015 to be his interface with the Haitian-American community, Fitzpatrick said.
That September, she invited Fitzpatrick to her house to hear a pitch about a home business she was running with her husband. He declined, saying his wife handles those decisions.
The next thing he heard was that she had filed to run against him for the District 3 seat.
Romelus, who was born in Haiti, used Jacquet as her campaign manager. Jacquet donated $250 to the Romelus election campaign.
She sent this response via email, “I choose not to comment at this time” to a series questions about her upset victory.
In Ocean Ridge, Brookes said Aaskov was helpful in 2011 when he first ran for the commission, taking him around the condominiums she manages and introducing him.
But in 2015, she was on the same slate as Brookes and Pugh. Aaskov said she was too busy to discuss her strategy then.
“Gail is the property manager for condo associations. People who live there may not be here during the election,” said Brookes, a self-employed, furniture sales representative. “They look to Gail for info about who to vote for.
“Snowbirds listen to one voice, it’s the easiest path.”
Ocean Ridge has about 1,100 registered voters, enough for one precinct. Since the elections office recounts one precinct in each town, “I didn’t have to ask for a recount,” Brookes said.
He was able to review the mail-in ballot envelopes, but they don’t indicate which candidate the voter selected.
“If I could have had my friends understand the game, just vote for one of the three on the ballot, I could have won,” he said.