Judge holds off on ruling in Miami-Dade State Attorney election write-in issue

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

A federal judge said he will decide Friday whether to force Miami-Dade County to open up the State Attorney’s Aug. 14 primary election to more than 700,000 Republican and independent voters.

U.S. Judge William Zloch heard arguments Thursday, but stopped short of deciding immediately.

Two voters are suing Miami-Dade’s election supervisor, saying that a “loophole” in the state’s election law that allows write-in candidates to close primary elections is disenfranchising thousands of voters.

Incumbent Katherine Fernández Rundle is facing fellow Democrat Rod Vereen on Aug. 14, a race that would have been open to all voters because no Republicans or independents filed to run. But just before the April filing deadline, two write-in candidates, Michele Samaroo and T. Omar Malone, filed to run.

Neither will appear on the ballot, and neither has actively campaigned.

But under a controversial and much-criticized secretary of state advisory opinion, their entry served to close the primary race to just 525,890 Miami-Dade Democratic voters, making Aug. 14 the defacto winner-take-all race.

Independent voter Vincent J. Mazzilli and Republican Armando Lacasa filed suit, saying the “gimmick” candidates are trampling their constitutional right to vote.

Their lawyer, Roberto Martinez, asked Zloch to move the election to the November general election ballot, which means Miami-Dade’s 1.3 million voters could have a say in deciding the county’s top law enforcement officer.

On Thursday, Martinez and his nephew, lawyer Roman Martinez, attacked the closed primary as trumping the will of voters who in 1998 approved an amendment to the state’s constitution. It allowed for primaries open to all voters if two candidates from the same party do not face a candidate from an opposite party or an independent.

In drafting the revision to the constitution, lawyer Roman Martinez said, elected officials clearly wanted “opposition” to mean balloted candidates, not write-ins who historically never come close to winning.

Judge Zloch seemed skeptical, asking why lawmakers did not specify in detail that write-in candidates do not count as opposition.

“They just didn’t think it was necessary,” Roman Martinez said.

The lawyers also pointed to a sworn affidavit from Rod Smith, the head of Florida’s Democratic Party, which says that the party is not taking a position on whether the race should be open or closed.

But Miami-Dade Assistant County Attorney Orin Rosenthal countered that the courts are not the venue for challenging the write-in issue, and that local election supervisor should not be a party to a lawsuit.

“If the Democratic Party wants to allow other parties to vote in their election, they need to go to the Legislature,” Rosenthal said.

He also said that opening the primary would throw the election process into chaos because ballots have already been printed.

The lawsuit “is akin to a passenger in a moving car getting out while it is driving and being asked to change the engine,” Rosenthal said.

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