Miami Will Hold an Election in District 2, but Votes for Teresa Sarnoff Won't Be Counted

Ken Russell is technically now commissioner-elect, but there will be one more meaningless election.
Ken Russell is technically now commissioner-elect, but there will be one more meaningless election.
Photo via Ken Russell Campaign

People who are cynical about American democracy claim that your votes don't matter and that elections are actually determined by the moneyed elite. Yet Ken Russell, who just last year was merely a citizen concerned about toxic soil in his local park, will be Miami's next District 2 commissioner. He beat Teresa Sarnoff, the well-connected wife of the term-limited incumbent Marc Sarnoff who managed to raise a war chest that dwarfed those of her competitors. 

However, the irony is that Russell's ultimate win will become official in an election that actually won't matter at all. According to a legal opinion from the City Attorney's Office, yes, Miami will hold a runoff election, but votes for Sarnoff won't be counted. 

To rewind, Miami has a two-step election system in place. If a candidate doesn't get 50 percent of the vote in the general election, he or she must face off in a runoff against the candidate who got the next highest vote. Russell received 41 percent of the vote last week, far outstripping second-place Sarnoff's 23 percent. The problem for Sarnoff is that third-place candidate Grace Solares netted 22 percent of the vote running on an anti-Sarnoff platform. The writing was on the wall. There was little chance Sarnoff was going to pull off a runoff victory, so she pulled out of the race with a message against negative campaigning and asking for reform of Miami's election system. She then sent an official letter of withdrawal to the city clerk. 

The problem is that neither Miami's city charter nor its city code has any provision for what would happen if a candidate pulled out of a runoff election. 

City Attorney Victoria Mendez's office has now issued a legal opinion stating that while an election will be held, it won't technically matter.

Mendez's office had to reach back to state supreme court rulings from the '50s and '60s to reach an opinion. One 1964 case affirmed a candidate's right to resign from the race and have his or her name removed from a ballot at any time for any reason. Assistant City Attorney Forrest Andrews, who authored the opinion, then looked to a 1953 case involving a man running for tax assessor who died before the election. His only competition were write-in candidates, and the state supreme court ruled that any votes cast for someone known to be deceased or resigned from the race are not legal votes. 

So an election will be held, but signs posted at polling stations will notify voters that votes for Sarnoff won't be counted. Russell is obviously the only other choice. 

Teresa Sarnoff
Teresa Sarnoff
Image via Sarnoff's Campaign

However, Andrews found no legal precedent for an election being totally called off under such circumstances. Either Florida law or Miami ordinances would need to be changed to avoid a similar situation in the future. 

Barring any other surprises or challenges, the legal opinion should clear up any lingering confusion about the situation. So, yes, we'll have an election that won't matter, and, yes, taxpayers will pay for it. 

Of course, now some District 2 residents may be wondering whether they have any civic duty to vote. For one, it might make for a reasonably interesting story. 

"You kids can't even get out to vote nowadays," you might say decades from now. "So busy with your hallo-tweets and teleportation dating apps, but one time I went to vote in an election that didn't even matter! That's how important democracy is to me!" 

"Is this the one about the yo-yo guy, Grandpa? We've heard it like ten times before. We get it — democracy matters even when it literally doesn't." 

Then again, if Sarnoff technically received more votes than Russell, it could lead to legal challenges. Probably not. Sarnoff say she's not trying to pull off a sneak defeat or run any stealth campaign, but weirder things have happened in Miami. For what it's worth, Russell is still urging his supporters to either vote or send in absentee ballots. 

That probably meaningless election will be held November 17. Mark your calendar. 


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