Florida voters in 1998 passed a constitutional amendment that opened primary elections to all voters when no candidate from an opposing party qualifies to run. Allowing all registered voters to participate in those primaries is the right thing to do.
Unfortunately the law didn’t account for write-in candidates, an oversight that is once again being exploited by faux candidates with no realistic chance of winning even a sliver of the vote. By signing a few forms to get on the ballot, the write-ins effectively disenfranchise thousands of voters by triggering an unnecessary general election.
Last week, a legal challenge to a write-in candidate in the District 64 state legislative race in parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties resulted in a judge canceling the Aug. 26 Republican primary for that race.
Yet thousands of ballots have already been mailed and returned by voters who must now be told their votes will not be counted. Instead, voters will decide the contest between the two Republican candidates during the Nov. 4 general election, provided any appeals by the write-in are rejected.
While it’s gratifying the judge’s rule will allow more voters to participate, the legal confusion provides another glaring example of why state lawmakers need to fix a loophole that causes problems every election cycle. Write-in candidates should have to run in the open primary. At the very least, they should have to pay a filing fee or get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, as legitimate candidates have to do.
In the District 64 race, Republican incumbent Jamie Grant faces Republican challenger Miriam Steinberg. There are no Democrats or candidates from other political parties running, meaning all registered voters should have had a chance to decide the race in the Aug. 26 primary. But that may not happen because write-in candidate Donald John Matthews was on the ballot until last week, when a Leon County circuit judge disqualified him for failing to live in the district when he “qualified” to run.
To further confuse matters, the decision last week runs contrary to another judge’s decision involving a Broward County district. In that case, the judge ruled residency in the district is only required on election day, not on the day of qualifying. The Florida Supreme Court might eventually decide the questions raised by the conflicting residency rulings.
In the meantime, local elections supervisors must now alert the voters affected by the District 64 ruling that a primary race appearing on their ballots doesn’t really exist. All of this because a candidate who didn’t live in the district at the time he “qualified” was able to get on the ballot and throw the primary into disarray.
Voters made their intentions clear 16 years ago when they voted to open the primaries when only members of one party are running. But time and again the write-in loophole has been used to close the primaries, sometimes by political parties or candidates who encourage write-in candidates to get on the ballot so the primary will be restricted to voters of their party. Such manipulation silences voters and undermines the democratic process.
Lawmakers should end this election chicanery once and for all.