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How A Bank Error Led to the Throwing Out of an Election

The Florida Supreme Court orders a do-over because of a returned check.

October 4, 2016

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Not to make you nervous, but on September 15 the Florida Supreme Court threw out an election and ordered a new one. The ruling raises a set of interesting questions, such as under what circumstances courts can throw out election results, especially in light of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court is currently split 4–4 and the pending presidential race.

The Florida Supreme Court case was called Wright v. City of Miami Gardens. James Barry Wright had a compelling case. He was a candidate for Mayor of Miami Gardens when he was told that the check he used to pay his candidate filing fee was returned by the bank.

Although Wright had ample funds to cover the fee, the bank didn’t cash the check because they could not find the account number listed. Yet other checks written on the same account had cleared. It was a bank error. But that didn’t matter. Wright was struck from the ballot because of the check. And so he sued to get his name back on the ballot. Meanwhile, the election happened without him.

Wright appealed all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, who agreed that he should not have been removed from the ballot. Among the reasoning for granting relief, the Florida Supreme Court returned to first principals like: “Our Florida Constitution opens by succinctly reaffirming a truism that is the heart of our government: ‘All political power is inherent in the people.’ Art. 1, § 1 Fla. Const. This Court has long considered free and fair elections vital to ensuring that such political power is not usurped from the people.”

The Florida Supreme Court noted that the right at stake here was Wright’s right to run for office. As the Court said, “[f]undamental to our system of government is the principle that the right to be a candidate for public office is a valuable one and no one should be denied this right …” The Court cited its previous 1956 case, Ervin v. Collins, which stated: “The lexicon of democracy condemns all attempts to restrict one’s right to run for office. The Supreme Court of the United States has approved the support of fundamental questions of law with sound democratic precepts.”

In conclusion, the Florida Supreme Court held: “we are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that disqualifying a candidate who did everything right due to an error of a third party bank that was totally beyond the control of the candidate is both unreasonable and unnecessary, as well as plainly irrational.” And so they have ordered a new election that will give Wright a chance to be a mayoral candidate.

Now because of the timing of all of this, the new election in Miami Gardens cannot be held on November 8 with the presidential elections (thereby providing the city with some economies of scale.) Instead the city will hold a special election in December at the cost of full election. Maybe the city should send the bill to Wells Fargo bank, the source of all this acrimony.

So while Wright’s case raised a set of unique occurrences, it does serve as a reminder of the awesome power courts—and especially state courts—have to rein in the government. They can even throw out an election under certain (albeit extreme) circumstances.

And this is why having an eight-person U.S. Supreme Court in an election year is so troubling. Think back to 2000 when the presidential election hinged on who had won the contested Florida vote. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the hand recount of ballots should continue. But it was the U.S. Supreme Court that stepped in and told the state to stop the recount in Bush v. Gore. While this result didn’t please everyone, it did give the presidential election a definitive end.

If there are contested results in Florida or elsewhere in the 2016 presidential election, good luck to us all. Because of the composition of the current U.S. Supreme Court, that body is more likely to end up with a 4–4 tie. And ties at the Supreme Court mean that the lower court’s ruling stands. So Americans may see the fate of the nation rest in the hands of a state Supreme Court, perhaps like the one in Tallahassee that just threw out the Miami Gardens election.

This is one more reason why it would be far better to hold hearings on Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination and elevate him before the election. Leaving a split Supreme Court is inviting mischief in this election year.