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When is helping voters too much?

Some voters say Isis Segarra helps them with a lot of things - even punching their ballots.

By LEONORA LaPETER and KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000


TAMPA -- Four years ago, Republican activist Isis Segarra helped Estrella and Pedro Alfonso become citizens and register to vote. She returned at election time to help the Cuban immigrants request absentee ballots.

This year, Mrs. Alfonso said, Segarra even voted on the ballots for them.

Mr. Alfonso, who has Alzheimer's, never saw his ballot punched. His wife gave the 68-year-old man's ballot to Segarra.

"I trusted Mrs. Segarra because she is very political, and since I don't know much about politics, I instructed her to vote for me," Mrs. Alfonso, 70, said in Spanish as she stood at the screen door of her West Tampa home.

Segarra, who fled Cuba and Fidel Castro in 1960, might be as responsible for delivering the election to George W. Bush as any get-out-the-vote rally, butterfly ballot or military absentee. This one-woman voting machine, who led Bush's absentee ballot initiative in Hillsborough County, says she had a hand in getting hundreds of people to vote, most by absentee.

Three seemingly healthy voters said Segarra even punched their absentee ballots for them. Others initially said Segarra voted for them, then recanted that account in later interviews.

Even with the voter's permission, casting a ballot for someone able to do it is against the law.

Segarra, 66, who had a 1983 vote fraud conviction overturned on appeal, said she only cast ballots this election for disabled or blind voters who needed help.

"I haven't seen anything in the law that says I can't do it myself if they ask me to help them," Segarra, wearing a "Viva Bush" button, said this week at Tampa Republican Party headquarters. "I'm not taking their ballots and doing it myself. I'm voting the way they tell me."

It wasn't just the Republicans who encouraged thousands to vote from the comfort of home. Both parties targeted absentee voters this presidential election like never before, and the Times found one Tampa Democrat whose relatives said he voted their ballots.

One name stands out

The Times reviewed nearly half of Hillsborough County's absentee ballots, and one name stood out. Segarra served as a witness on at least 65 absentee ballots and Republican activists working with her witnessed at least 26 more.

But Segarra's effect on the election was far greater than just the votes she witnessed. The Times found dozens of instances in which Segarra registered voters and requested absentee ballots for them.

Her effect has been 20 years in the making.

Since the early 1980s, Segarra said the Republican Party of Hillsborough County has helped 7,000 immigrants, many of them Hispanic, become U.S. citizens. She has helped lead the effort.

Most of her voters are elderly, disabled or both. Most don't speak English. Many rate American politicians based on how likely they are to oust Fidel Castro or how they responded to the Elian Gonzalez custody case.

Many of the Cubans who have come to Tampa in the past four decades since Castro took over share Segarra's loyalty to the Republican Party.

"I came from Cuba and I escaped communism," said Saturnino Ortega, 68, a Republican, "and as I understand it, not all Democrats are communists, but all communists are Democrats."

Over the years, voters like Ortega have become friendly with Segarra and speak of her with reverence and affection.

When they're sick, she drives them to the doctor. When they're healthy, she comes over for a cup of coffee or reads them their mail.

And during every election, she's there with forms to make sure they request their absentee ballots. She offers rides to the polls. Without her, some said, they never would have voted.

"This is her zone," said Leogracia Vazquez, waving her arm at the neighborhood around her teal stucco home on West Beach Street. "Mrs. Segarra takes care of all the Hispanics around here."

Josefina Puyada, 76, knew she needed help and was told to call Segarra, who had helped other residents vote at her Columbus Drive retirement complex.

"She helps us a lot," said Puyada, who said her whole family is registered Republican. "The only thing she doesn't do is she doesn't help Democrats."

During interviews conducted through a Times interpreter, some voters Segarra helped seemed confused by what had taken place. A few couldn't remember voting. Several said Segarra voted for them; later, when asked for clarification, they said she hadn't. Others said she came to their homes with a voting machine.

Segarra said those seemingly confused voters might have been afraid to talk to reporters. She said, laughing, that she has never had a voting machine.

Although no one said Segarra forced them to vote one way or another, a few said they didn't care or know for whom to vote and left it to Segarra.

Lucia Herrera, a retired seamstress who immigrated from Cuba in 1966 and doesn't speak English, said she punched the box for Bush. But then the 82-year-old handed her absentee ballot to Segarra to make the other selections.

"Could be," Segarra said, when told that Herrera had said she had made selections on her ballot. "Most of them have problems seeing those lil' numbers, honey. They're afraid to pick the wrong number and if they ask me to do it, I'll do it."

Clara Perez, 61, and her mother, Feliciana Rodriguez, gave their ballots to Segarra to fill out because they didn't know their way through them, but Perez said she instructed Segarra to pick a full GOP slate.

The women are physically able to vote and can read the Spanish on their ballots, Perez said.

Mrs. Alfonso, another voter who gave her ballot to Segarra to punch, is physically able to see and punch her ballot.

Florida law says it is a third-degree felony to fill out another's ballot unless that person is blind, disabled or unable to read or write.

When presented with a copy of the law, Segarra said she did not violate it.

And though Segarra said she never exerts influence, her relationship with Gregorio Vazquez shows that even she might not know how much power she has.

In 1996, Segarra helped Vazquez, a former political prisoner who said he spent nine years in a Cuban jail, register to vote.

Later she gave him work cutting her grass. This summer, she brought him fruit as he recovered from heart bypass surgery.

Two years ago, Vazquez said, she encouraged him to change his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. And this past election, she brought him an absentee ballot request form and suggested that he vote a full Republican slate.

Vazquez, 70, who doesn't speak English, said Segarra didn't force him to switch parties or vote Republican. But she had been nudging him to vote Republican for some time, and he said he felt obligated to her because of her kindness.

Segarra said she can't help it if she influenced Vazquez.

"He asked me, "How do you want me to vote?' " Segarra said. "I said, "Vote the way you want.' He said, "You tell me how to vote.' I said, "I'd vote Republican.' "

Pam Iorio, Hillsborough elections supervisor, said state law allows people to register voters, help them request absentee ballots, help them change party affiliation or act as absentee witnesses.

What makes that sort of help cross the line? If the person offering the help coerces, intimidates or offers something of value for a vote, Iorio said.

Interviews with family members of Elio Muller Sr., a Democrat, revealed that he takes the ballots of some family members and fills them out. Muller, 77, who is active in the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, denied that he punched the ballots of others.

Muller, who was a witness on at least 19 absentee ballots, said he offered help to only family and friends.

"I'm not scared; I've done nothing wrong," Muller said. "I've voted with the law and everybody else voted with the law."

Jack Howland, Muller's uncle who lives in an assisted living facility, said Muller punched his ballot. Howland, 88, said he has allowed Muller to cast his ballot for the last eight to 10 years. And another relative said he and his wife let Muller, his wife's cousin, vote for them this year and in years past because they know Muller will select Democratic candidates.

Did Segarra or Muller cross the line? Iorio won't comment.

"When we receive evidence of wrongdoing, we send it to the state attorney's office," Iorio said.

Segarra has been down that road before. In fall 1982, she was charged with helping her husband illegally register two voters who prosecutors said were not given proper oaths. The charges stemmed from that summer, when Isis Segarra was running for the state House against Democratic state legislator Elvin Martinez.

Isis Segarra lost to Martinez and a jury convicted her on both misdemeanor counts. Her conviction was overturned on appeal, with a judge saying the violation was technical -- not criminal. Her husband, Israel, was found innocent in a jury trial.

Isis Segarra said then and now that the charges were politically motivated because Democrats like Martinez were incensed that she was trying to register Hispanics as Republicans in a county where many Hispanics leaned left.

Segarra was a Democrat when she arrived in this country. She switched parties as Ronald Reagan was going into office, she said, and quickly made her volunteer work with the Republican Party a full-time job without pay.

Segarra said she has been careful to work above the law. Since being prosecuted, she said she always brings a witness -- usually a friend or another Republican Party volunteer -- with her when she visits voters.

A staggering number of Hillsborough voters -- 39,244 -- returned absentee ballots this presidential election, up from just 21,376 in 1992 and 26,210 in 1996. Elections officials see no sign that the popularity of absentee voting, far more convenient than lining up at the polls, will slow.

What can be done?

So what can be done to protect honest voters and honest good Samaritans?

Iorio and others would like to see limits on the number of ballots a person can witness.

In 1998, the state Legislature passed a law that would have limited the number of ballots a person could witness to five. The limit was rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice. But Iorio said it is one of the issues that the state association of elections supervisors likely will pursue during this spring's legislative session.

"It is important to limit the exposure any one individual has to votes," Iorio said.

For her part, Segarra doesn't think voting at the polls is safer than voting absentee. Democrats and Republicans try to influence voters at both places.

"Don't you think the Democrats are doing the same thing, don't you think they're trying to get people to change party, trying to get them to vote?" Segarra said. "If you tell me that's illegal, then I'm going to believe it's time to go back to Cuba."

- Interviews with voters who spoke Spanish were conducted by chief editorial assistant Alicia Olazabal. Times staff writer Sydney P. Freedberg and researchers Connie Humburg, Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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