Ballot fraud forces judge to order new Miami mayor poll

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THE city of Miami was plunged into political chaos last night after a judge voided last November's elections for mayor because of massive ballot fraud. In what was billed as a "historic and momentous" decision, he called for a new vote within two months.

The ruling followed a near-war within the city's majority Cuban-American community, which led to comparisons with the old Miami Vice TV series. Disgusted non-Cubans said the Cuban exiles had turned their city into "the equivalent of a Third World banana republic."

Miami Judge Thomas Wilson was ruling on a civil suit brought by the man who was mayor until the 4 November election, Cuban-American Joe Carollo, claiming fraud by the man who won, Xavier Suarez, also a Cuban refugee.

Mr Carollo, 42, a businessman, finished well ahead in the original ballot but failed by only 155 votes to get the necessary 50 per cent majority to avoid a run-off with the second-placed Mr Suarez. Nine days later, Mr Suarez narrowly won, thanks to a surge of absentee ballots in the so- called Little Havana district where most Cuban exiles live. A 92-year-old Suarez supporter was arrested for getting phoney absentee votes from his domino-playing cronies in Little Havana.

Mr Carollo's lawyers presented evidence which suggested their client would have won clearly, but for the fraudulent absentee votes.

Judge Wilson ruled that many of the absentee ballots were fraudulent, cast by people who were in fact dead, by homeless people who had been paid a few dollars, by previously- unheard of immigrants to within the city limits or by elderly hospital patients who had been tricked by Suarez campaigners.

"The evidence shows a pattern of fraudulent, intentional and criminal conduct that resulted in such extensive abuse of the absentee ballot laws," the judge ruled.

"The value of every honest vote was greatly diminished or devalued by this fraud."

Standing outside the downtown courthouse, Mr Carollo told reporters the ruling suggested he was still mayor. That seemed likely to cause chaos in City Hall where Mr Suarez, 48, a Harvard-educated attorney often dubbed Hurricane Xavier of el Mayor Loco (the crazy mayor) because of his aggressive style, was still working yesterday.

In his first few weeks, Mr Suarez tried, but failed to sack popular non- Cuban police Donald Warshaw and replace him with a Cuban-American. He also appointed as a city commissioner (councillor) fellow-Cuban Humberto Hernandez despite the latter's indictment on bank fraud and money-laundering charges.

"This is a great day for Miami," said Mr Carollo. "Democracy has been defended and protected."