Miami-Dade State Attorney election lawsuit now to include state officials

Florida’s Secretary of State should be a party to a lawsuit seeking to open the Aug. 14 Miami-Dade state attorney election to Republican and independent voters, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. Judge William Zloch dismissed the lawsuit brought by two voters against Miami-Dade County, but asked that it be re-filed to include the secretary of state, and the state’s election canvassing board.

The suit alleged that a “loophole” in the state’s election law that allows “write-in” candidates to close primary elections is disenfranchising over 700,000 Republican and independent 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.

Their presence closed the August primary to just 525,890 Democratic voters, making that date the defacto winner-take-all election. Neither Samaroo or Malone will appear on the November general election ballot, and no write-in candidate has ever come close to winning an election in Florida.

Fernández Rundle has accused Vereen’s campaign of running sham write-in candidates to deprive her of support from across party lines. Vereen denies that, and criticizes the incumbent for urging Republicans and independents to switch parties to vote for her.

Independent voter Vincent J. Mazzilli and Republican Armando Lacasa filed suit, saying the “gimmick” candidates are trampling their constitutional right to vote. Their lawyers asked Zloch to order Miami-Dade to open the primary, or move the race to the November general election ballot so that all 1.3 million county voters have a chance to vote.

Their lawyers attacked the closed primary as trumping the will of voters who in 1998 approved an amendment to the state’s constitution that 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.

Two years later, a controversial and much-criticized advisory opinion by then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris declared that just one write-in candidate counts as “opposition,” even though that candidate’s name does not appear on the ballot.

But the federal lawsuit, filed last month, was only against Miami-Dade’s supervisor of elections, Penelope Townsley. Assistant County Attorney Oren Rosenthal argued Thursday in a hearing that the county merely tabulates the votes, but the real power to certify results of the election lies with the state.

In a 10-page order, Zloch agreed, saying that the only way to consider the lawsuit would be to rule on whether Harris’ 2000 advisory opinion is an “incorrect interpretation” of the amendment passed by voters two years earlier.

Zloch set the date for a new court hearing to consider the lawsuit for July 23.