Miami Beach mayoral race awaits possible recount as candidates cry foul

In Miami Beach, the hard-fought race to become the city’s next mayor might come down to just 12 votes, and some candidates are questioning “irregularities” in the voting process.

Provisional ballots may be key. Twelve of them were cast in the city, and they will be counted Friday by the Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board.

Provisional ballots are those cast by people who cannot prove their eligibility to vote on Election Day. They are given two days to provide written information proving their eligibility, and the canvassing board then decides whether to accept or reject each ballot.

State law requires a recount if a decisive margin is one-half percent or less. As a result, mayoral candidate Philip Levine needs at least 50.5 percent of the vote to avoid an automatic recount. Wednesday, he had 50.48 percent.

If the provisional votes favor Levine, he could avoid an automatic recount. If not, a recount could knock him below the absolute majority 50 percent plus one vote — needed to win the mayor’s seat outright. In that case, there would be a runoff election with second-place finisher Michael Góngora.

Levine’s lawyer, JC Planas, said Levine needs five more votes to avoid a recount.

In 2012, the race between County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro and rival Luis Garcia hinged on a recount. In the end, Barreiro fell nine votes short of an outright victory, but he won the runoff election.

A preliminary review of Miami Beach’s provisional ballots by the Miami-Dade Elections Department showed that six of the votes are probably valid and will count toward the final totals, according to Christina White, chief deputy supervisor of elections. The three-member canvassing board will make the final determinations when it meets at 10 a.m. Friday.

Góngora, who drew about 36 percent of the vote, said Wednesday he has concerns about the voting process, and that he is looking into “irregularities.”

“I strongly suspect that there was election fraud,” he said. He admitted he has no proof, though.

City Commission Group III candidate Matti Herrera Bower echoed Góngora. Bower ran for a seat on the commission after being term-limited as mayor. Tuesday’s vote forced her into a runoff against retired community banker Joy Malakoff.

The results were surprising: Bower garnered 44 percent of the vote, to Malakoff’s 40 percent. Bower has served in city government for more than a decade. Her opponent is a political newcomer, though Malakoff notes she has served on city boards and in leadership positions of local organizations such as the American Heart Association.

At first, Bower said “absentee ballots were manipulated,” but then admitted she had no proof.

“I think the numbers were very high, very interesting numbers,” Bower said.

Bower received approximately 1,700 absentee votes, while Malakoff secured approximately 1,200. There were 10,330 votes cast in total in the Group III race.

Malakoff said she did well in her first election because residents were upset that Bower ran for office again after being term-limited. Bower had already served the maximum years allowed as a commissioner and then as mayor.

But the city’s rules limit only the number of consecutive terms an elected official can serve in a particular office. Anyone can jump back and forth between being mayor and commissioner without violating the term limits.

Tuesday’s vote shows that residents are “supporting term limits in the city of Miami Beach, and they want change,” Malakoff said. “And that’s what I’ve been talking about.”

Malakoff said her campaign did not target absentee voters, but many of her friends are older and travel, and vote by mail. She said her own husband did so.

“I’d say more than half of my friends use absentee ballots,” she added.

Political consultant David Custin — who ran Malakoff’s and Levine’s campaigns, among others in the Beach — lobbed his own accusations Wednesday. He wrote in an email that he has “reliable sources” that absentee ballot fraud had occurred, and specifically mentioned Bower and Góngora.

“My clients will be taking actions during the runoff so that their illegal activity ceases to occur,” he wrote.

Commissioner Jonah Wolfson thinks he knows why Malakoff and other newcomers fared so well in the first round of voting: the convention center.

Miami Beach is in the midst of a billion-dollar renovation of the city-owned convention center. Conventions prop up the city’s budget through resort taxes. Backed with money from the Fontainebleau hotel, itself a failed bidder for the renovation project, Wolfson has railed against the plan.

The city envisions a 52-acre overhaul of the site and intends to lease some public land to a private developer to build a hotel. The public would pay about $600 million to renovate the convention center itself. A crop of candidates, new to the City Commission, questioned the project’s size, scope and price tag. Those already on the commission have generally been supportive.

Voters helped slow down the massive plan Tuesday by approving a ballot question that requires a super-majority of commissioners to approve any leases of the convention center land to private developers. The question passed overwhelming- ly.

“The supporters of a bad convention deal did not win without a runoff yesterday, and I think they’re very much at risk of losing their tenure with the city,” Wolfson said.

Góngora said “a lot of false information” has been spread about the convention center, and he blamed the election results in part on news media coverage of the issue and of his campaign.

The private developer that Miami Beach has chosen for the massive overhaul, South Beach ACE, declined to comment Wednesday.

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