Editorial | Voter confidence in election process the paramount task
Members of the Cape Coral City Council spent time this week individually meeting with residents hoping to be appointed the vacant District 4 seat.
On Wednesday, they will collectively vet the 13 applicants at a public meeting and appoint one to serve as an interim member of the Cape’s elected board until Gov. Ron DeSantis either reinstates suspended member Patty Cummings to the seat she won last November or until the General Election next year.
While various city councils have been down this road before in the wake of a death in office, resignation, or a suspension for alleged improprieties, this appointment is different, unique enough that this Council has two tasks at hand.
Ms. Cummings, who has been charged with three felonies, is accused of fraudulently claiming to live in District 4 when she qualified to run for the seat and was subsequently sworn into office, allegations she has steadfastly denied.
If true — if, and count us among those who adamantly believe and support a criminal justice system under which a person accused is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law — it means the integrity of the District 4 election process has been impugned.
If true — if — there are two classes of victim here.
One is the voters and not only every voter in District 4 but every voter who cast a ballot in November 2022 as, while candidates must live in the district they seek to represent, they are elected citywide.
The other is a class of one — Jennifer Nelson, the incumbent who lost to Ms. Cummings.
We can debate whether the third candidate in the primary would have beat Ms. Nelson had the race been one-on-one. The simple fact of the matter, though, is that head-to-head, the District 4 runoff was decided by a faction of a percent with Ms. Cummings receiving 50.89% of the vote to Ms. Nelson’s 49.11%.
Council’s collective job, mandated by the city charter that was ostensibly flouted in the last election, is to appoint a qualified District 4 representative to fill the seat.
This applicant pool includes multiple individuals with a range of backgrounds and expertise that make them well qualified to fill the post.
Accepting an appointment such as this is not a small commitment. We thank them for stepping up.
But let us share the second task with which this Council is faced.
Summed up succinctly, the charges filed against Ms. Cummings by the State Attorney’s Office — fraudulent application for driver license and two counts of false swearing in connection with or arising out of voting or elections — allege her candidacy was built on a foundation of fraud.
Restoring faith in the city’s election process, which has taken a heavy hit on both sides of the Patty Cummings victim-of-politics or residency-fraudster divide, is a more challenging do.
That means now is not the time for individual members of council to define most-qualified as like-minded allies to solidify a voting bloc, the understood-but-little-talked-about driver behind appointments at any level of government.
Put another way, this is not an opportunity, it is a tragedy.
Pull politics out of this appointment.
We don’t say this “because she ran” though the tightness of the election results should be compelling.
Nor is it an endorsement of Ms. Nelson over other applicants.
This is simply the right thing to do in a situation where Cape Coral voters — be they those who cast a ballot for Ms. Cummings or those who cast a ballot for Ms. Nelson – have been disenfranchised by a process usurped one way or the other.
The “what’s next” in our scenario?
If Ms. Cummings met the qualifications for office and is adjudicated not guilty, she returns.
If there is no re-instatement, Ms. Nelson serves for less than a year until November ’24 when voters return to the polls and decide as is their right.
Meanwhile, Cape Coral residents receive affirmation directly from Council that there is a commitment to both charter compliance and election integrity.
Assurance that the municipal election process in Cape Coral works, even if they are forced to give it a helping hand.