Two of Miami-Dade’s leading Democratic candidates stood on a street corner outside the AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday and denounced Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s decision to reject the Miami Heat’s offer to use the facility as an early-voting site and instead use a nearby museum with easy access to the city’s Metromover system.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, whom Gimenez is trying to unseat in November, declared the Republican mayor’s decision “voter suppression” and said Gimenez was following President Donald Trump and an “authoritarian playbook.”
She was joined by Daniella Levine Cava, a county commissioner running to succeed a term-limited Gimenez, who said she had been in touch with Heat management about the team’s push for an early voting site for the time since the arena opened in 2000.
Levine Cava, a Democrat, called Gimenez’s decision “a blatant power grab.” “I urge the mayor… to reconsider this decision and to enter into this historic partnership,” she said.
Christina White, the county’s elections supervisor and a Gimenez appointee, described a more pedestrian motivation in declining the Heat’s offer in favor of the Frost Science museum five blocks away.
She said the county couldn’t count on using the arena again in future elections, since fall voting usually overlaps with the start of the NBA season.
She said access to transit was a key selling point for Frost, since its campus includes the Museum Park Metromover station. At the arena, the College North Metromover station sits on the other side of Biscayne Boulevard and six lanes of traffic.
“My recommendation from the start was the Frost Museum,” she said. “I consulted with the mayor, as we always do with sites before an election.”
Saturday’s press conference in downtown Miami escalated a fight launched by the Heat Friday afternoon when it issued a blistering statement about Gimenez’s decision. The team said it would not be deterred by any “forces involved in making this decision” that “think this will quiet our voice on the critical importance of voting..”
After the press conference, Gimenez’s congressional campaign posted a statement accusing Mucarsel-Powell of politicizing the decision on where to put Miami-Dade’s early-voting sites.
“Now, standing 3 blocks from an early voting site that has free transportation access, [Mucarsel-Powell] continues to pay petty politics,” the statement said. “Authoritarian regimes do not have fair elections, much less early voting sites.”
The Heat’s offer was part of an NBA campaign to turn its venues into voting sites for the 2020 election. Mucarsel-Powell and Levine Cava argued rejecting the offer resulted in Miami-Dade also rejecting efforts to increase voter turnout, because the Heat arena is one of the best-known building in Miami.
“The county cannot market the way the Miami Heat can,” Levine Cava said, standing in front of the arena’s jumbo digital screen off Biscayne Boulevard. “This would be to increase voter participation. That’s why we need this partnership.”
Levine Cava said she had spoken to Heat president Eric Woolworth about the team’s effort to bring early voting to the arena, but had not spoken to White about her recommendation to pick the Frost site over the Heat site. Levine Cava wrote White a letter endorsing the arena.
The county needed an additional downtown site because their usual pick, the Arsht center, was unavailable for the fall because of construction work, Elections deputy director Suzy Trutie said.
After the press conference, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s Florida campaign also issued a statement, calling Gimenez “a Trump loyalist” who did a “disservice to…the act of voting.”
While Election Day requires voters to go to their neighborhood precincts, the county’s nearly three dozen early voting sites are open to all once early voting begins Oct. 19. Campaigns consider turnout in heavily-Democratic and heavily-Republican areas to be proxies for how much enthusiasm the parties are generating.
The arena sits outside Mucarsel-Powell’s district, but in a heavily Democratic area that favored Levine Cava in the August mayoral primary that sent her and Republican commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo Jr. to a fall run-off in the officially non-partisan race.
That area of downtown is covered by the county’s District 3, where about 64% of registered voters are Democrats. A Miami Herald tally of precinct data shows Levine Cava won the district in August with 37% of the vote in the six-person race. Bovo finished fifth, with 8%.
District results don’t necessarily predict what results will be in an individual early-voting site, which any voter can use on their way to work or on errands.
In Orlando, the Magic franchise secured position to use the Amway Center as an early voting site and plan to deploy players as part of the operation.
“Voting to me is the most American thing you can do for a democracy to work,” Magic center Mo Bamba told NBC, which reported he would who working at the arena as a volunteer during early voting. “I learned that at a very young age in elementary school, just voting for a class president. This is something I just want to push for.”
Heat spokeswoman Lorrie-Ann Diaz said Saturday it had offered the arena for early voting in fall elections beyond 2020, when COVID restrictions and the NBA “bubble” strategy of playing all games in Orlando have left the arena idle.
Mucarsel-Powell pointed to the 2018 fight over early voting on college campuses as evidence of Gimenez’s resistance to improving voter turnout.
After courts struck down a state prohibition on early-voting precincts on campuses, the county’s Elections Department said it was too late to grant Miami Dade College’s request for a site. Under pressure, Gimenez agreed to bring back early voting to Florida International University, then didn’t block a commission move to bring early voting to Miami-Dade College’s north campus, too. With early voting heading to that heavily Democratic area, Gimenez told Elections to bring early voting to MDC’s Kendall campus as well, an area with more Republican voters.
Juan Carlos Planas, an election lawyer and former Republican state lawmaker from Miami, who endorsed Levine Cava and backs Gimenez over Mucarsel-Powell, said he thought the Frost was a better choice.
“I don’t think the arena is a good idea,” he said, citing the Frost’s parking garage and nearby lot at Museum Park as easier than the arena’s basement garage. “I’m looking at it logistically.”