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How low voter turnout can harm Miami-Dade residents — and how to fix it

Miami Beach residents vote at the early voting polling place at the Miami Beach City Hall, on Tuesday, October 31, 2023.
Pedro Portal
/
Miami Herald
Miami Beach residents vote at the early voting polling place at the Miami Beach City Hall, on Tuesday, October 31, 2023.

Last month saw major changes come out of elections in Miami Beach and the City of Miami. Miami Beach elected a new mayor and commissioners, while Miami exchanged two commission incumbents for two newcomers who promised change.

Despite the high stakes for city residents in both cities, only a small portion of each city's eligible voters participated in the elections.

Only about 22% of Miami Beach's eligible voting populationshowed up to cast a ballot in the Nov. 21 mayoral runoff. Newly elected Miami Beach Mayor Steven Meiner won by a margin of less than 800 votes.

The numbers were worse in mainland Miami. With almost double Miami Beach's eligible voters, Miami had fewer people show up to the polls in total. Only about 8,000 of the approximately 81,000 people who could have voted in Miami's Districts 1 and 2 cast ballots.

"Individuals do not fully appreciate how important local elections are at the municipal level and at the county level," said Anthony Alfieri, a law professor at the University of Miami and director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service.

READ MORE: New Miami commissioners sworn-in at private ceremony

Alfieriexplained that in off-year elections — elections held outside a presidential election year — voter turnout tends to decline for a number of reasons, especially in Miami-Dade County.

Local voters don't always realize how important city and county elections are compared to state and federal ones, Alfieri said. When there isn't enough engagement with voters from their city councils or county commissioners, they can forget the power their vote has to affect funding for parks, education, road projects, affordable housing and local zoning for development. Not to mention property tax rates.

"Individuals do not fully appreciate how important local elections are at the municipal level and at the county level."
UM law professor Anthony Alfieri

"Eligible voters do not grasp in a meaningful way the sense of salience in exercising that vote — the sense that an individual is able to have an effect through the voting process, and that voting participation is a way to not only discharge a civic duty but is also impactful and will lead to positive change," he asserted.

Miami Beach's budget is $942 million, which is debated and approved by the mayor and city commissioners. In Miami, the five commissioners vote on a budget of about $1 billion in taxpayer funds. When voters approve elected officials of their choice, they have a hand in deciding where their tax money goes.

When only a small percentage of voters choose who represents an entire city or city district, said Alfieri, it could lead to people being elected who aren't familiar with an entire community's wants and needs.

He urged elected officials at all levels of government to put concerted effort into engaging with the public and explaining the impact of their votes to improve voter turnout even in off-year elections. The more informed residents are about what city and county governments do, the more likely they are to get involved, Alfieri argued.

Said Alfieri: "[They] have to put their shoulder to the wheel and help educate communities at the grassroots level through churches, schools, recreation programs... on the importance of voting explaining why votes matter, why voices matter."

Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Joshua Ceballos at jceballos@wlrnnews.org
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