In Miami, 11 candidates running for two city commission seats have spent the past year knocking on doors, producing political advertisements and glad-handing voters in an attempt to drum up votes for Tuesday’s election. They have spent a combined $1.3 million, and put their reputations at stake, hoping to win — or keep — a vote on the powerful city commission.
This week, they rushed to the polls to greet early voters before they cast their ballots. Here’s what they found across five sites: a combined 12 votes an hour.
Despite the presence of 71,000 voters in Miami’s first and second districts, the city looks like it’s headed for another low-turnout election. As of Friday, 4,800 absentee ballots had been submitted, and 839 early votes had been cast in seven days, numbers that are fairly consistent with the last election for the same two seats in 2011, and could represent half the vote by the time polls close Tuesday evening.
The candidates, unions and civic groups are doing what they can to get out the vote, and still believe they can swing the results with a jolt from certain neighborhoods or demographics. Polls remain open for early voting Sunday.
But without a presidential or big-ticket referendum to drive attention, the low turnout isn’t surprising anyone, and it drives the way campaigns behave and how they spend their money.
“Part of the tragedy of local elections is you tend to have relatively small budgets, so what you do to spend money, the smart thing, is on frequent voters, voters who voted in the last three out of five times,” said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor and pollster. “The turnout is almost by design low because you don’t reach out to every registered voter in the district.”
In other words, most campaigns aren’t wasting resources on voters who haven’t paid much attention to elections in the past. For Engage Miami, a civic engagement group pushing to increase voter participation among Miami’s youth and young professionals, that’s a trend that needs to change. Justin Wales, a Miami attorney and Engage leader, said in a recent interview that the organization was producing 15,000 voter guides.
They don’t realize how easily swayed these elections are. Will we be able to exploit this low turnout in order to create a youth voting bloc?
Engage Miami leader Justin Wales
“We were looking at the 2011 election [in District 2] and saw 41,000 registered voters, but 5,000 people voted, and less than 700 of those people were 40 years old,” said Wales. “They don’t realize how easily swayed these elections are. Will we be able to exploit this low turnout in order to create a youth voting bloc?”
History says no. More than likely, older, more engaged voters in Coconut Grove, where most the candidates live, will carry at least half the vote in the election and go a long way toward deciding who wins. Moreno, who has done work for one of the campaigns, says the neighborhood is even more important after the city commission redrew district lines in 2013 and moved Miami’s Upper Eastside into District 5. Golden Pines, a more Hispanic, residential neighborhood west of U.S.1, may also play a larger role in the election.
Some have questioned whether downtown might become more prominent in elections, given the residential boom, but consultants working the race don’t expect that to be the case, at least not yet. Moreno said Brickell voters also tend to turn out in force for presidential elections, but not so much for local elections.
A low turnout is what most expect in just about any South Florida local election, and particularly in District 2, where a barrage of negative campaigning may persuade likely voters to simply stay home. But Sean Foreman, a political science professor from Barry University, said lower numbers may ironically make it harder to predict what happens on election day, given that there are nine candidates in the race.
“We expect the vote will be split up,” he said. “The low turnout really makes it a wild card situation. It’s really hard to know what to expect.”
Miami voters will either choose from among two candidates in District 1, or nine candidates in District 2.
District 1: Miguel Gabela, Wifredo “Willy” Gort (incumbent)
District 2: Williams Armbrister, Javier Gonzalez, Rosa Palomino, Ken Russell, Teresa Sarnoff, Mike Simpson, Seth Sklarey, Grace Solares, Lorry Woods