Low turnout in Coral Gables election goes beyond UM precincts

By JOE CERVONE
School of Communication
University of Miami

Looking back, University of Miami undergraduate Pietro Bortoletto remembers when the Bank United Center stood silent as a ghost town, on a day where it could have been bursting with activity.

On that day, April 12, 2011, the City of Coral Gables was holding its biannual mayoral election featuring a three-way race between candidates Jim Cason, Tom Korge and Don Slesnick.

Serving as the voting center for precincts 639 and 640, the Bank United Center stood open all day for Coral Gables residents to come cast their votes in the mayoral election.

“There was maybe one person every 30 minutes,” Bortoletto said. “Since it’s the slowest polling site in Coral Gables, they didn’t even have campaign polling people there.”

By the end of the day, after polls had closed and votes had been counted, newcomer Jim Cason had upset Don Slesnick, an incumbent who had served as mayor of Coral Gables for the past decade.

According to the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, Cason had captured the votes of precincts 639 and 640 with a mere 86 votes.  Tom Korge had received 75 votes and Slesnick only 78. Overall, the polling location had produced extremely low turnout, making up just over 3 percent of the 7,967 votes that were cast.

Such low voter turnout raises the question: Was the University of Miami alone in its failure to get out the vote or was the entire city of Coral Gables apathetic in this localized election?

Graphic by Joe Cervone.

Bortoletto, a former vice president for UM’s Student Government who had worked with Slesnick to get UM students to come out and vote, noted how on Election Day other precincts produced better turnout.

“The St. Augustine Church had a lot of residents come, very few were faculty members, students and UM people, who kind of trickled in during the free lunch times.” Bortoletto said. “The majority of voters were residents but there was definitely more of a UM presence at St. Augustine than at the BUC.”

Although most voting precincts out-produced the Bank United Center, as a whole Coral Gables’ turnout was quite poor. According to the city of Coral Gables’ Web site, as of 2010, the city had a total population of 45,501. In comparison, 29,252 residents were registered to vote as of June 22, 2010. Of those who were registered only a mere 7,967 actually casted a ballot.

So while 64.3 percent of Coral Gables residents may be registered to vote, only 17.5 percent of the population actually did.

“People are apathetic, it’s hard enough getting someone out there to vote for the President let alone local elections.” UM Student Government member Vincent Foster said. “There’s not enough publicity, like when do you ever see the mayor or any state representatives or even governors on TV?”

Graphic by Joe Cervone.

Apathy toward local elections is certainly exacerbated on UM’s campus where many of the students are from all over the state of Florida, from out of state or even other countries.

“It’s usually common for low turnout of college students in elections,” UM Political Science Professor George Gonzalez said, “It’s very possible the student body didn’t know the election took place or couldn’t register to vote. Students are not taken up in local politics, since they’re not from Coral Gables.”

One of the biggest issues for getting college students to vote in local elections is disconnect with the city and its officials. For many students, where they live while attending college serves as a temporary home during the four years they complete their degrees.

“A big part of the problem is there’s only close to 1,500 students registered to vote in the city of Coral Gables,” Bortoletto said, “That leaves a big number of students that either aren’t registered and if they are, chances are they’re registered back home at their own district.”

Since college students may be difficult to gain support from, many candidates may be hesitant to reach out to for their support.

“The candidates made a choice, there was not much effort on campus,” UM Political Science Professor and Coral Gables resident Christopher Mann said, “If the candidates aren’t going to reach out to the students than the students won’t reciprocate back. That’s human nature.”

In this case, candidates seemed to ignore publicizing their campaign on UM’s campus, neglecting to advertise with yard signs around the school.

“Candidates will engage only certain parts of the community.” Mann said. “I saw election yard signs in Coral Gables that I didn’t see on campus. If they’re not visible then students just aren’t going to show up to vote.”

For student leaders like Bortoletto and Foster, it remains an important goal to bridge the gap between University of Miami students and Coral Gables elected officials.

Prior to Election Day, one of their acts was to schedule a dinner between student leaders and Mayor Slesnick in order to give students a chance to meet, greet and discuss issues with him. Both students believe that making local officials more visible to students would help alleviate voter apathy on campus and in the community.

“Eventually just having more face representation,” Bortoletto said, “People need to understand there is a local government and these are the people running it, so when it comes time to nominate them or elect them every two years, students will have more face and name recognition.”

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