This Is Democracy?

June 19, 2010

Florida’s statewide filing deadline for November races fell on Friday and news reports highlighted a great example of the kind of behavior that disgusts voters who say that they are just fed up with the same old “business as usual” as politicians from both parties took turns abusing a loophole in Florida law that allows for the disenfranchisement of thousands every election season.

Last minute write-in candidates closed primaries between Republicans vying for a state Senate seat and Democrats running for the Hillsborough County Commission.

In the District 3 commission race, incumbent Kevin White will square off against former state Sen. Les Miller and businesswoman Valerie Goddard in the Aug. 24 primary.

The winning Democrat will face Dwight Bolden – a political newcomer who filed to run as a Democrat but qualified as a write-in candidate – in the Nov. 2 election.

“I didn’t have any money or a campaign team, so I went with the non-traditional way,” said Bolden, whose name, under election laws, won’t appear on the ballot.

He wasn’t the only unexpected contender to qualify this week for the fall elections.

In the District 12 Senate race, a pair of unknowns qualified as write-in candidates, fueling speculation about whether the two were asked to run to close the primary.

They are Derek Crabb, 30, a Petco store clerk, and Kimberly Renspie, 20, a student at Catawba College in North Carolina.

If they hadn’t filed, all district voters, regardless of party, would have decided the race between former state Rep. Kevin Ambler and Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman in the primary.

The write-in candidates mean that only Republicans can vote in the primary, leaving all other voters with a choice in November of the primary winner and the two write-in candidates whose names won’t appear on the ballot.

More:

So, who is 30-year-old Crabb?

Republican candidate Kevin Ambler wondered the same when he read Crabb’s sparse financial information.

“My first thought was, my opponent might want a closed primary, so maybe he recruited this person,” he said.

The opponent, County Commission member Jim Norman, is also Republican.

Because no one has filed as a Democrat, the Aug. 24 primary would have been open to all voters.

That is, until Crabb came along as a write-in, listing no political party.

The district comprises northern Hillsborough and central and eastern Pasco counties.

Speaking hurriedly from the pet store, he said he has never held public office.

When asked why he is running, he said, “I don’t think I want to comment on that.” Pressed for an answer, he said, “Without disclosing too much, I want my voice to be heard.” Pressed even more, he added, “I’m trying to lay low right now.”

Write-in Candidate Loophole

Florida is a closed primary state.  Only voters who are registered as a member of a particular party may participate in that party’s primary election.

In 1998, Florida voters stated their desire for more open and meaningful elections by passing an open primaries amendment that allowed all voters, regardless of party affiliation, to participate in a primary election if the winner of the primary election would be running unopposed in the general.

In other words, if 5 Republicans are running for a State Senate seat and no Democrats are in the race, then every voter in that district should be able to vote in the Republican primary – which is ordinarily only open to registered Republicans – because the primary will effectively decide the winner of the general election.

If only registered Republicans are allowed to vote in the example above, then Democrats and independent voters are disenfranchised along with folks who are registered with minor parties like the Greens or the Tea Party.

Although the intent seemed clear, and eminently fair, the actual language left just a bit of wiggle room.

If all candidates for an office have the same party affiliation and the winner will have no opposition in the general election, all qualified electors, regardless of party affiliation, may vote in the primary elections for that office.

The amendment passed in 1998.  By 2000, a loophole was already being used to close primaries that should have been open to all registered voters.  Several legislative races and at least one US House race were affected.

The write in loophole has affected only one US House race, the district 1 Republican primary between incumbent Joe Scarborough and Bob Condon, both of Pensacola.  There are 4 write in candidates.

This is how it works:  Back to the example cited above with 5 single party candidates in the race.  If a candidate will benefit from disenfranchising two thirds of the electorate, all the candidate need do is produce a write-in candidate and VOILA! the primary is closed to all but the party faithful.

A write-in candidate can qualify for the ballot pretty easily.

A write-in candidate is not entitled to have his or her name printed on any ballot; however, a space for the write-in candidate’s name to be written in shall be provided on the general election ballot. A write-in candidate is not required to pay a qualifying fee, election assessment or party assessment, or file petitions(Section 99.061, Fla. Stat.)

And once a write-in candidate is “qualified,” then the general election will be “contested” and the primary is closed.

Of course, many voters thought that this loophole was unfair, and lawsuits have been fought to fix it.  Florida courts have sided with the politicians in this fight.

In Lake County, a man who was registered as a Republican declared himself to be a write-in candidate for the Democrats in a county commissioner race. That step prevented 93,000 Democrats, independents and other non-Republicans from casting a ballot in the election.

But Hill said he could not – as the loophole’s challengers wanted – make a judgment on a write-in candidate’s intentions.

“Nothing in the Constitution authorizes this court or any other court to predict the degree of opposition a candidate will present or to determine whether a candidate’s opposition is significant or even realistic,” Hill wrote in his ruling.

The average margin of victory in the general election for these primary winners who take on a write-in candidate is 99.8 percent.

A spring study by the Florida Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections showed that, through 2006, a write-in had filed to run and thus “closed” a primary in a state legislative race 38 times since the advisory opinion was issued.

The average margin of victory over those write-in candidates was 99.8 percent. Seven times, write-in candidates did not even vote for themselves. The story is similar for many local races, as well.

Critics say this proves that many write-in candidates are just spoilers. They enter the race with no intention of campaigning, much less winning. They simply want to shut out non-party members from voting. Typically, the dominant party in a county uses the strategy when the other party cannot field a candidate with a chance of success.

Both Parties Do It Routinely

Both Democrats and Republicans have learned to love this loophole and to abuse it routinely.

Aronberg said both parties are guilty. In South Florida, it’s seen more often with Democrats, who are in the majority. Elsewhere in the state, it’s a common Republican practice.

Why won’t it change? “It’s hard to ask politicians who benefit from the system to change the system. This is something that the public a only finds out about every two years,”

That’s Dave Aronberg, one of this year’s Democratic Attorney General candidates.  He’s been fighting to close this loophole since it was opened up in 2000.  Sometimes it seems like he is the only politician in the state who actually cares about this issue.  He’s championed lawsuits challenging the loophole and (From the same article:)

State Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, introduces legislation every year to close the loophole. And every year he loses.

“It’s disgusting. It’s un-American. It’s un-democratic. It’s a manipulation of the process. And it will continue because the politicians use it to protect themselves,” he said.

What’s more, it’s easy because the write-in candidate doesn’t pay a fee or collect petition signatures to get on the ballot.

The result, Aronberg said, every election season, the voters lose out. “In a matter of seconds, thousands of voters are disenfranchised.”

The pols who abuse this loophole in the Florida Constitution and the write-in candidates who enable them are frequently so pleased with their cleverness that they don’t even try to hide their evil scheme.

Schlein, 60, a Leesburg Republican, said she declared as a write-in candidate in the race to prevent Democrats from voting in the Republican primary, which pitted two-term incumbent Jennifer Hill against challenger Jim Miller.

And

The loophole is manipulated easily. In 2004, Jean Enright had her mother file as a write-in candidate for the Port of Palm Beach commission seat she ultimately won. Two Pinellas County brothers have raised eyebrows in running – ostensibly against each other – for a seat on that county’s commission.

Democrat Manuel Press qualified as a write-in candidate to replace state Rep. Irving Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, in District 90. Press was on vacation Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

Press and Harvey Arnold, who is running for the seat as a Democrat, belong to the United South County Democratic Club. Arnold, the club’s former president, has received support from local Democrats. Public records show Press’ spouse, Phyllis, another club member, donated $100 to the Arnold campaign.

Arnold denied encouraging Press to qualify as a write-in candidate, though he knew of Press’ plans several weeks ago, he said.

“I’m delighted Press is running so that Republicans won’t vote,” he said.

In the race for the House District 86 seat formerly held by Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, homemaker Kathleen Faherty-Ruby of Delray Beach qualified to run as a write-in. A Republican, Faherty- Ruby said she was, paradoxically, running to give Republicans a choice in the election, even though her candidacy shut Republicans out of voting in the primary.

“I wanted to give Republicans a choice of writing in whoever they wanted to in the general election,” she said. “Basically, I thought it was the right thing to do.”

No one encouraged her to run, the mother of six boys said. She said she doesn’t necessarily want people to vote for her, just whomever they want to write in.

So, if you live in a district with a closed primary and you want to vote for your elected representative, you may have to make a strategic decision to change your party affiliation before the registration deadline on July 26.  Then you can vote in the closed primary!

But even that wacky strategy will fail if you live in the area within Hillsborough County where County Commission District 3 and  Senate District 12 overlap.  In that case you can vote in either the District 3 County Commission race (if you are a registered Democrat) or, for Republicans, the District 12 State Senate race, but not both.  Independents wont get to vote in either race.

In Florida, we call this democracy.

Disclaimer: Dave Aronberg is taking on fellow Democrat Dan Gelber for the right to face the Republican nominee for Florida Attorney General in November.  I like both Democratic candidates.  As of now I am undecided on this race and I will enthusiastically support whichever candidate ultimately prevails.  I am writing about the loophole because it is in the news today, not to give props to Dave Aronberg.  Having said that, it is impossible to write about this issue without mentioning Aronberg and giving him credit for fighting to fix this mess.

UPDATE: From the comments – Did you notice the Hill-Hill connection? Commissioner Jennifer Hill and Judge Mark Hill are married.

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2 Responses to This Is Democracy?

  1. Jacob Ogles on June 19, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Just commented on your DailyKos entry. This is a very important topic and I am glad you are writing about it.

    Did you notice the Hill-Hill connection? Commissioner Jennifer Hill and Judge Mark Hill are married. I wondered with all the Leesburg/Lake County references if you were from that area. If so, you probably already knew that, but I found it interesting Mark Hill was the judge weighing in on this when his wife had a similar situation in her race. I can only assume he wasn’t actually weighing in on her race.

  2. BlogWood on June 19, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    I updated the post. Thanks for the info!

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