A Palm Beach County commissioner and a state House member clinched their seats last year by stepping into voters’ homes and helping them fill out their mail-in ballots, a Palm Beach Post investigation has found.
Commissioner Mack Bernard and Rep. Al Jacquet, both Democrats running in the August primary, took advantage of gaping holes in Florida’s vote-by-mail laws to pressure and cajole voters in their living rooms.
In one case, a blind voter said Bernard filled out and signed his ballot. His vote counted, but Post reporters looked at the signature on the ballot envelope after the fact and found it didn’t match the one on file. Florida law requires that absentee voters sign their own ballot.
In other cases, residents said candidates watched over their shoulders, telling them who to vote for. Voters said they received mail-in ballots but didn’t know why. One woman said she felt pressured by a persistent candidate who talked his way into her home and dug out her ballot from a stack of discarded mail.
Whether their tactics were allowed under Florida law is unclear. Elections experts had never heard of candidates filling out ballots and found the practice disturbing.
Bernard and Jacquet, both lawyers who have been in politics since 2009, denied wrongdoing but didn’t answer any of The Post’s questions specifically.
“To argue that my hard-fought victory was achieved by anything other than the sweat on my brow and the lost sole on my shoes is offensive,” Bernard said.
None of The Post’s findings support President Donald Trump’s claim of millions of illegal votes, but instead suggest a growing facet of the elections system is ill-equipped to prevent voting fraud where it is most susceptible — from inside voters’ homes.
The Post found:
- Ballots may have been requested without voters’ knowledge: Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher had flagged at least 300 ballot request forms as potentially fraudulent, but said that under Florida law, she had no choice but to send the ballots to voters anyway.
- Bernard and Jacquet used daily updates from the elections office detailing when ballots were sent to voters, allowing them or their workers to visit voters’ homes when ballots hit their mailboxes. A Miami-Dade grand jury in 2012 said that campaigns should not be privy to the information because of the potential for fraud.
- Once mail-in ballots were signed and sealed, voters said they gave the ballots to candidates or campaign workers for delivery to the elections office, saving the voter the price of postage but also entrusting the ballot to strange hands.
- Prosecutors are investigating after getting multiple complaints of voter fraud. One of the complaints was from Bucher. Another was from Michael Steinger, whose opponent in the Senate District 30 race was Bernard’s former legislative aide, Bobby Powell.
Who are Mack Bernard and Al Jacquet?
Both are of Haitian descent, and they targeted predominantly Haitian neighborhoods in their vote-by-mail strategy, which clinched their seats.
County Commissioner Mack Bernard
» Age 41, attorney, born in Haiti, came to America at age 10, grew up in Delray Beach.
» Appointed to Delray Beach City Commission in 2008, retained seat in 2009. Quit Delray commission to run for state House seat in 2009. Elected to two-year term. Ran for state Senate in 2012 but lost to Jeff Clemens. Florida Elections Commission member, 2014-15.
» Aug. 30, 2016: Elected to Palm Beach County Commission.
State Rep. Al Jacquet
» Age 37, attorney, born in St. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles, to Haitian parents; came to Delray Beach at age 9.
» 2009-2012: Legislative aide to state Rep. Mack Bernard; elected to Delray commission in 2012, re-elected in 2014.
» March 2016: Adviser to Christina Romelus in her Boynton Beach City Commission campaign.
» Aug. 30, 2016: Elected to state House.
Compiled by staff writer Alexandra Seltzer and staff researcher Melanie Mena
Practice frowned upon
For years, campaigns have targeted absentee voters and collected their ballots, but former prosecutors and judges, election lawyers and campaign strategists — even a former Florida Supreme Court chief justice — roundly condemned helping people fill out their ballots.
“That’s just a stupid thing for a candidate to do,” said Gerald Kogan, who served on the state’s high court for 11 years. “Why on Earth would a candidate have to go into somebody’s house and watch them fill out a ballot?”
Even a consultant who worked for Jacquet and Bernard said it was wrong.
Video: Are vote-by-mail ballots ripe for fraud?
Video by Jennifer Podis / Palm Beach Post staff.
“I would not want to be involved with any candidate or any volunteers that would do those kinds of things,” said the consultant, Rick Asnani. He added that he was not aware of their absentee ballot tactics because they didn’t need help with their ground game.
Asnani and other consultants say they tell their clients not to help voters fill out ballots at home.
“The voter is responsible for filling out their own ballot in the privacy of their own home, sealing their ballot, and the ballots are only allowed to be collected by volunteers,” he said. “You’re not allowed to sit there and touch their ballots until it is signed, dated and handed to you.”
Why voting by mail is ripe for fraud
Formerly known as absentee voting, you can now vote from the comfort of your own home. How it works
1. A voter requests a ballot - by phone, online, in person or by mail.
2. Elections office mails the ballot.
3. The voter fills it out, seals it, then mails it or drops it off at the elections office.
What could go wrong
No guarantee you can vote secretly — No protection from politicking, either.
Little security — No picture ID to request a ballot by mail, easier for others to vote on your behalf.
It’s out of your hands — Candidates and campaign workers routinely deliver ballots to the elections office.
‘Not a fair election’
It proved to be a risk worth taking.
Bernard’s chief county commission opponent, incumbent Priscilla Taylor, had 768 more votes among people who went to the polls, but Bernard’s 1,287 absentee-vote edge put him over the top.
Jacquet, who, like Powell, once worked as a legislative aide for Bernard, lost at the polls to opponent Edwin Ferguson by 132 votes, but topped Ferguson in mail-in ballots by 1,167.
Bernard and Jacquet, working together, received nearly half their votes from mail-in ballots. On average, all candidates in August received one-third of their votes by mail. And in one Boynton Beach precinct, Bernard and Jacquet received nine of every 10 absentee ballots cast.
The totals weren’t the only things unusual about the races. In more than a dozen precincts, Bernard and Jacquet received more votes than all of the candidates combined in the marquee U.S. Senate race at the top of the ballot.
“That is highly suspect,” said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who specializes in voting and elections results. “When you have isolated precincts where a certain candidate overperformed, it raises questions about what those voters were thinking in marking their ballots. Or whether those voters marked their ballots at all.”
Taylor, a longtime county commissioner, had heard so many complaints from voters that she sent a mailer during the campaign warning them about mail-in ballot fraud.
The race left her disgusted.
“My thoughts are still that the race was not a fair election,” Taylor said. “I don’t want to say ‘stolen,’ because I don’t want to start anything. I’ve moved on.”
69% of all ballots were mail-in
378 total mail-in ballots
338 voted for Bernard
334 voted for Jacquet
62% of all ballots were mail-in
366 total mail-in ballots
310 voted for Bernard
302 voted for Jacquet
Rolling Green Elementary,
55% of all ballots were mail-in
135 total mail-in ballots
112 voted for Bernard
105 voted for Jacquet
Preserving civil rights
Bernard said he owed his victory to hard work and preparation, starting a year before the election when Taylor was seeking a U.S. House seat.
“My goal was to personally touch every voter in District 7, which stretches from Delray Beach to Lake Park. I did that. My opponents did not.
“Many of the voters throughout District 7 are African-Americans, Caribbean natives or Hispanics. These communities have been marginalized and their voting rights jeopardized over the last several years both here in Florida and nationally. My campaign, when asked, provided the necessary voter education to preserve their civil rights.”
Like Bernard, Jacquet did not answer specific questions submitted to him in writing by The Post.
“I worked hard and played by the rules! No laws were broken. I will not answer to your trumped up scare tactics. Blacks have been terrorized long enough!” the first-term state House member wrote.
“Please reassure me that this is not discrimination and a distraction in effort to destroy black progress and increase a dying circulation,” Jacquet wrote. “Working twice as hard for half the respect is all too familiar.”
Later, his lawyer Richard Ryles sent an email to Jacquet but copied The Post: “Don’t respond further. Great job. None of their accusations are illegal. To respond further would be futile.”
The blind man’s ballot
Post reporters went into neighborhoods where nearly every resident voted absentee. Reporters found people who said Bernard and Jacquet helped them fill out their ballots or who said they were surprised when a ballot showed up in the mail, since they had never requested one.
Joseph Clerfius, 78, and his wife, Antoinette, said Bernard helped them fill out their ballots in their Boynton Beach home. Speaking through a court-certified Creole translator hired by The Post, they said they didn’t know who Bernard was, or that he was on the ballot.
He just showed up at their door in August.
“I saw he was Haitian, like me. I offered him God. He said, ‘Oh I’m a Seven Day (Adventist),’ ” Antoinette Clerfius, 72, said.
Bernard attended the Daughter of Zion Seventh-day Adventist Church at least as recently as April, his Facebook page shows.
Antoinette Clerfius later identified the man who came into her home by pulling one of Bernard’s holiday mailers off her refrigerator and pointing to him smiling with his wife and two children.
Although she had voted several times before, it was her first time voting by mail, election records show. Neither she nor her husband voted in the November presidential election.
"I couldn't sign because I can’t see," he said. "I gave him my voting card number. That's all I did."
— Joseph Clerfius
She said Bernard showed her how to connect the two lines to record her vote but she put pencil to paper herself.
But that didn’t happen with her husband’s ballot. She told Bernard her husband was blind, and “They said they could help my husband.”
Joseph Clerfius said Bernard did all the writing, and he wasn’t offered a chance to sign — a requirement for submitting an absentee ballot.
“I couldn’t sign because I can’t see,” he said. “I gave him my voting card number. That’s all I did.”
Joseph added, “He wrote my name.”
State law allows blind or disabled voters to get help marking their ballots but says employers and union members can’t be among the helpers. It never says candidates can’t help.
But the law does tell voters they must sign their own ballot or their vote won’t count. The law is unclear as to whether it is illegal to sign another person’s ballot and, if so, what the penalty might be.
Regardless, if someone else signs a voter’s ballot, it should be caught by elections workers, who are supposed to check to make sure the signature on the ballot envelope matches the signature on file with the elections supervisor. That’s the only way the office attempts to confirm that the person casting the ballot is the actual voter.
But it wasn’t caught.
Post reporters looked at the signature on Joseph’s ballot envelope and it didn’t appear to match his signature on file with the elections supervisor. State law forbids making copies of election signatures so reporters could only view them.
There is something else unusual about Joseph’s ballot envelope. The Clerfiuses said Bernard came to their house on a Saturday. Antoinette’s ballot was dated Aug. 13, a Saturday. But whoever signed Joseph’s ballot dated it Aug. 11, a Thursday.
A former elections official said he’s never heard of a candidate filling out someone else’s ballot.
“That sounds disturbing,” said former Miami-Dade County elections supervisor David Leahy, who worked with Centorino to combat absentee ballot fraud there in the 1990s.
She felt ‘forced’ to vote
Bernard was born in Haiti and raised in Delray Beach. Jacquet was born of Haitian parents on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten.
Each moved to America by the time they were 10.
They focused their vote-by-mail efforts in well-maintained working-class neighborhoods, home to much of the county’s growing Haitian community, which now makes up about 5 percent of the county population. Children played in the streets and yards, cats roamed and adults often were outside, doing yard work or working on a car.
Residents welcomed Post reporters, who spoke with voters in about 60 homes.
Stanley Noel, 28, said Jacquet came to his Delray Beach home and helped his sister, elderly mother and elderly family friend fill out their ballots. He recognized Jacquet because Jacquet had once hired Noel’s private security business.
“He showed them how to fill it out,” Noel said. Jacquet didn’t specifically mark his family’s ballots but did say “this is what you would check off,” he said.
Some voters didn’t know who helped with their ballot, but remembered that they were Haitian.
Ermite Norcius, 21, did not want to vote and lied to the stranger who showed up at the door of her Lake Park home.
“I told him I lost it,” Norcius said. “He came inside and told me he’d help me look for it.”
The man found her ballot in a stack of mail on her counter and asked her to fill it out, she said. She felt “forced” to vote, but not unsafe, Norcius said.
“I just wanted to get it over with,” she said.
Norcius couldn’t recall the man’s name but remembered how he had identified himself: “He pointed to a name on the ballot and said, ‘That’s me,’” she said.
He told her he was Haitian, said Norcius, who also is Haitian-American.
He hovered over her as she filled out the ballot and suggested who she should vote for, Norcius said. He never marked her ballot.
He didn’t leave until the ballot was in his hands.
“It was strange to a point where I decided I was going to look it up later,” Norcius said. “But I forgot and let it go.”
Louisina Jadimene saw campaign workers walking around her neighborhood, and she asked them to help fill out her ballot. They told her she could vote for anyone she wanted. She just wanted to vote for Democrats.
“They said these people were good people and I should check them,” the 39-year-old Boynton Beach resident later recalled. “They were Haitians like me. I wanted to help them.
“I said, ‘Are these people good?’ They said, ‘All those people are good.’”
Jadimene’s 16-year-old daughter, Virginia Mayard, is too young to vote, but watched her mother and a man while they went over the ballot.
“He was sitting at the table helping us,” Mayard said.
Voter fraud allegations by Trump and other Republicans have been focused on voting at polling places, where guarantees of secrecy and security are strong and fraud is rare.
But voting by mail, widely seen as the future of voting, offers few of the same protections.
“If there’s one area of the voting process that’s really still susceptible to significant fraud, it’s the absentee ballot,” said Joseph Centorino, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor who won convictions of more than 50 people for voter fraud in the 1990s and is now the executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
The cases typically follow a pattern: The candidate gets unusually high numbers of absentee ballots, the other side cries foul, and police find evidence of fraud.
But in nearly all the cases, the charges were dropped or the sentences reduced to probation, even in some felony cases.
The Post also spoke with a dozen voters who couldn’t remember requesting an absentee ballot. Except for family members or guardians, state law says that “any person who requests a vote-by-mail ballot on behalf of an elector (a voter) is guilty of a felony.”
Dieufort Louis-Jeune, 61, of Boynton Beach said the arrival of his absentee ballot was a complete surprise.
“I didn’t request it; it just came,” he said.
Adele Dorisme, 47, thought a family member might have signed her up unwittingly.
“I did not ask for anything,” Dorisme said from her West Palm Beach home. She had no interest in the election and did not vote.
Curious as to why the ballot showed up at her home, Dorisme pressed her aunt, Yvrose Armstrong, with whom she lives.
Armstrong remembered someone visiting the home during the summer. The person mentioned her niece and asked her to sign a document, she said.
“They said they wanted to verify that Adele lives here,” Armstrong said. She signed, but doesn’t know what she signed.
“Maybe that was the request,” Dorisme said of her aunt’s action. “Because I know I didn’t sign anything.”
During the race, opposing campaigns knew that going up against the combined resources of Bernard, Jacquet and Powell would be formidable.
Powell, an urban planner, was a sitting state House member; Jacquet, a lawyer, was a Delray Beach city commissioner; and Bernard, also a lawyer, was a former House member who had served two years on the Florida Elections Commission.
Taylor said that when she dropped her race for U.S. House and decided to run to retain her county commission seat, people warned she could be vulnerable to mail-in votes because of what happened in 2012.
That year, Bernard nearly defeated Jeff Clemens for a state Senate seat. He had roughly 1,300 more votes by mail than Clemens but came up 17 votes short overall. Bernard sued, demanding elections officials count 40 discarded absentee ballots with mismatching signatures. He lost.
And in many of the same Haitian-American neighborhoods where Taylor would be seeking votes, one of Bernard’s allies just months earlier had employed an absentee strategy to devastating effect. In March, Christina Romelus got nearly half of her votes by mail in her victorious March campaign for Boynton Beach City Commission — and she and her husband, Darren, were involved in the Bernard and Jacquet campaigns.
Taylor said she felt confident anyway — until she heard a stunning comment from Elections Supervisor Bucher about Bernard’s campaign.
“(Bucher) said that she had about 1,500 requests for absentee ballots that were all signed in the same ink and with the same handwriting, and it was (from) the same people bringing them in, and that was my opponent,” Taylor said.
Bucher told her that she had sent hundreds of letters to those people, telling them their signatures did not match the ones on file.
Bucher confirmed that she sent 300 letters on July 1, telling voters that she couldn’t send them ballots unless they updated their signature on file. She included voter registration applications for people to sign and return.
Only 19 people responded, saying they indeed submitted requests for an absentee ballot.
But Bucher, who served in the state House for eight years as a Democrat, said Florida law didn’t allow her to dump the remaining requests. In fact, it doesn’t even require that voters sign such a request, unless they are asking that the ballot be sent to an address other than the one listed in voter rolls.
So Bucher sent all 300 voters a mail-in ballot. Citing state law, she refused to identify the voters but she said they lived throughout Palm Beach County.
Rumors of people getting ballots who had not requested them ran rampant during the campaign.
“We were hearing troubling anecdotes about specific people being ordered absentee ballots, but not actually having ordered them,” said political consultant Jody Young, whose candidates ran against Bernard and Jacquet.
Steinger, a lawyer who lost to Powell and later filed a voter fraud complaint, dispatched an investigator to look into it. Steinger did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Taylor’s consultant, Richard Giorgio, said he was given a copy of the investigator’s findings in a three-ring binder.
Inside were affidavits from 15 to 20 people who said they either never requested a ballot or experienced other issues, Giorgio said. It included photographs of the person’s home and documentation showing they were sent a ballot. Giorgio said he no longer has the binder, though.
The findings were turned over to the State Attorney’s Office, and 21 days before the election, Steinger wrote a public letter to State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a fellow Democrat, requesting an investigation.
“A pattern of fraudulent, intentional and criminal conduct by anyone should not go unchecked,” he said.
State Attorney spokesman Mike Edmondson said the office has some voter fraud investigations under “active review” but would not provide more details.
“We regularly receive complaints during every election cycle about some kind of impropriety,” he said. “Most instances, they in fact are incorrect. But we do have referrals occasionally from the supervisor of elections herself, and we review those and continue to have some under active review at this point.”
Bucher told The Post the state attorney is investigating.
Some would-be voters told The Post they were approached by police in August after their vote-by-mail ballots weren’t counted. But of the people quoted in this story, only Asnani said he’s been contacted by law enforcement.
He said the contact was before the August election, when state attorney investigators called him for help analyzing voter data. He said he gave them his own analysis and helped them create other voter reports they wanted.
In early August, as the ballots were being mailed out, Taylor sent a flier warning people not to give their ballots to anyone and not to let people tamper with them.
Coverage of the flier in The Post prompted a rebuke from Palm Beach County Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, telling members in an email that they can, in fact, give their ballots to someone to turn in.
Anyone can collect an unlimited number of vote-by-mail ballots in Palm Beach County, as long as they aren’t paid to do it. Paid workers are limited to collecting no more than two ballots other than their own. Only Miami-Dade restricts the number of ballots anyone can collect, to two.
In the Bernard campaign, when someone needed to pick up a voter’s ballot, paid campaign workers were trained to turn the task over to a volunteer, one campaign worker told The Post.
Ion Sancho, recently retired after nearly three decades as elections chief in Leon County, said candidates should not be allowed to collect ballots.
“It’s never a good idea to give to a person who has a very strong interest in a particular outcome a ballot that may not meet their criteria,” he said. “It’s just common sense.”
Once the results came in, the scope of the vote-by-mail efforts became clear.
In Precinct 7186 at the Boynton Beach Civic Center, Bernard in the county commission race and Jacquet in the state House race received nine of every 10 absentee votes cast.
Two precincts cast more votes by mail in August 2016 than in the presidential election
- August primary election
- November presidential election
In that precinct, far more mail-in votes were cast in August than in the presidential election in November.
In other south county precincts, their absentee vote totals nearly matched vote for vote.
But it’s how those candidates performed compared with the other people on the ballot that Smith, the UF professor, considered suspicious.
In elections, the marquee races are at top of the ballot. The bigger the race, the more interest — and votes — from voters. In those precincts, the biggest race was the U.S. Senate primary featuring Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson.
In most precincts, the Senate candidates received more absentee votes than Bernard and Jacquet.
But in more than a dozen south county precincts, either Bernard or Jacquet got more votes than all of the votes cast in the U.S. Senate race.
In the Boynton Civic Center precinct, for example, 135 more people voted for Jacquet than for all of the Senate candidates.
“When you have that type of down-ballot voting that exceeds the top of the ticket, it raises some suspicions,” Smith said.
‘Little chance of stopping it’
Taylor said she believes future elections will be in doubt unless the rules or laws change. She doesn’t know exactly how.
“If someone comes in your house and can tell you who to vote for, I don’t think that’s right,” Taylor said.
Young, the political consultant, questions the need for laws that make it harder for people to vote.
“It’s a slippery slope, because you want people to vote, you want people to have convenience, you want people to easily obtain an absentee ballot,” he said.
He said exposure to the issue is the solution. If voters know about candidates’ behavior, they will be better informed in future elections.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant for all these problems,” Young said.
Giorgio believes the solution is enforcement. He’s been frustrated by the lack of it.
“If political parties are going to deny absentee ballot fraud is occurring; if the supervisors of elections are going to refuse to investigate complaints of absentee ballot fraud; if state attorneys are going to decline to prosecute cases of absentee ballot fraud; and if judges are going to be reluctant to overturn an election result, despite clear evidence of absentee ballot fraud, then there is little chance of stopping it,” Giorgio said.
For Bernard and Jacquet, the Aug. 30 primary meant outright victory. Nobody ran against them in the November general election.
Powell comfortably beat Republican Ron Berman in November, and in his first few weeks as a state senator has introduced a few pieces of legislation.
One of them?
A bill to make it easier to drop off vote-by-mail ballots.
Data reporter Mike Stucka, researcher Melanie Mena and staff writer Daphne Duret contributed to this story.