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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Joe Brown Columns

Write-in scam cheats other voters

A judge in Tallahassee disqualified a write-in candidate in the Florida House District 64 race Thursday because the write-in didn’t live in the district. As a result, what was a closed primary election between two Republicans scheduled for Aug. 26 now will be open to all voters in November — as it should be.

District 64, which runs from Safety Harbor in Pinellas County to Carrollwood in Hillsborough, is set up to lean Republican, so much so that Democrats didn’t even bother to field a candidate to challenge incumbent Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa. Grant did manage to draw a Republican challenger, however, in Miriam Steinberg, a Tampa engineer.

Still, at that time all voters in the district were eligible to vote in the primary. Florida mandates an open primary if members of only one party are on the ballot and there are no other candidates running in the general election because the winner of the primary automatically wins the general election.

Not long after Steinberg announced her candidacy, a guy named Daniel John Matthews became a write-in candidate. This closed the primary to Republicans only, which in turn denies non-Republicans living in the district the right to choose who will represent them in Tallahassee for the next two years. This amounts to voter disenfranchisement through an electoral loophole that makes no sense.

When the subject of voter disenfranchisement is in the news, it’s usually related to things like strict voter ID enforcement, denial of voting rights to felons, limiting early voting hours and purging voter lists. But in 2012, more than 900,000 Floridians were denied their right to vote in 15 state House and Senate races because of write-in candidates.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates for political office, but never a write-in. I’ve also been on panels at candidate debates and forums, but no write-in ever showed up. And none of them has ever won an election. So it’s amazing how these people whose names won’t appear on a ballot, who don’t campaign, who are not required to pay a filing fee or gather signatures can affect election outcomes.

I’ve also heard rumors of certain candidates (mostly incumbents) paying people to sign up as write-ins to close a primary, but was never able to prove it. I once tried to contact a few of these aspiring politicians, but they seem to enter the witness protection program soon after they enter a race.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. In 1998, 64 percent of voters approved an amendment to the Florida Constitution that read in part: allows all voters, regardless of party, to vote in any party’s primary election if the winner will have no general election opposition.

In 2000, however, then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris created the loophole that could have closed the District 64 primary by declaring that write-in candidates were legitimate. Someone needs to explain why.

One Florida lawmaker, state Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, says he’s looking into introducing legislation next year to close the write-in-candidate loophole.

“I feel very strongly about folks’ ability to vote,” Evers said. “I’ve had concerns expressed that when you have a write-in candidate you disenfranchise others’ opportunity to vote.”

There definitely needs to be some measure to straighten out this mess. Although one judge made District 64 an open election to be decided in November, another judge ruled that two Broward County primaries would be closed because write-in candidates only have to live in the district at the time of the election.

If the Legislature won’t do anything about the write-in candidate loophole, then perhaps the Department of Justice needs to do it. The right to vote is sacred. It’s true that many Americans are too apathetic to appreciate it, but we shouldn’t be disenfranchising those who do, especially by people whose names won’t even appear on a ballot.

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