The city of Miami, already reeling from financial woes, suddenly was without a mayor Wednesday after a Florida judge threw out the results of November’s election, citing evidence of “a massive, well-conceived and well-orchestrated absentee ballot voter fraud scheme.”
The ruling from Judge Thomas S. Wilson Jr. came after weeks of testimony in which witnesses, most of them elderly, said that their signatures were forged or that they felt pressured to sign ballots they had not marked during an election in which Xavier Suarez defeated incumbent Mayor Joe Carollo.
“The evidence shows a pattern of fraudulent, intentional and criminal conduct that resulted in such an extensive abuse of the absentee ballot laws that it can fairly be said that the intent of these laws was totally frustrated,” said Wilson in deciding a lawsuit brought by Carollo. The judge ordered a new election within 60 days.
At least three people have been arrested in connection with vote fraud, including one who said he bought votes with cash.
The decision vacating the election caused tumult and confusion at City Hall, where no one seemed to know who was in charge. City Commission Chairman Humberto Hernandez - himself under federal indictment on money-laundering charges - called a special commission meeting for Thursday to consider appointing an interim mayor. Carollo, 42, welcomed the decision, saying: “I’m very happy. This is a great day for democracy.”
Suarez, 48, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has made national headlines with his frenetic behavior since taking office, said he was happy, too. “I am happy that the people of Miami will know for sure who is the mayor,” he said.
Carollo and Suarez were forced into a runoff election after neither won a majority in a Nov. 4 election that included three other candidates. The absentee ballots in the primary heavily favored Suarez, who won the runoff 10 days later.
Wilson said he considered declaring Carollo the winner, but rejected the notion, saying that would disenfranchise honest voters.
The City Commission could name Carollo or Suarez interim mayor, or choose someone from its ranks. Hernandez said that was unlikely. “It would be somewhat crazy to want to be mayor for 60 days - you’d have to resign your job,” said the Suarez ally, in whose district much of the fraud reportedly occurred.
Dario Moreno, a professor of political science at Florida International University, said the judge’s order “is going to create a period of real instability for the city.”
But instability has been the rule here recently. Miami’s reputation has been battered by international news reports about a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, the conviction of a former commissioner on bribery charges and Suarez’s erratic personal behavior. Although the Suarez administration has reported progress on paying city debts, a state oversight board said Tuesday that the city was still $30 million in the hole even after tapping a reserve account.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ARRESTS At least three people have been arrested in connection with vote fraud, including one who said he bought votes with cash.