Florida has a long and undistinguished history of defrauding voters. It was the first state to impose a poll tax to keep blacks from voting, an example 10 other states soon followed. It gave us the farce of the 2000 election. Just this past year, the Legislature went on a rampage of voter-restricting schemes, imposing severe restrictions on voter registration drives, limiting early voting hours, and rolling back the voting rights ex-felons had just reclaimed a few years ago.
But there’s yet another scam only now gaining attention: write-in candidates who have no intention of running a campaign, but who qualify just to close their party’s primary. Under a Florida constitutional amendment voters approved in 1998, when a primary is contested by members of only one party, all voters, regardless of affiliation, get to vote. It makes sense because the winner will be the elected representative regardless, and elections are ultimately about representation, not party loyalty or party trickery.
Well, not in Florida. Write-in candidates don’t have to spend a dime to qualify, they don’t have to turn in a single petition and their names won’t even appear on the ballot. But the moment they “qualify,” they close the primary, because theoretically the winner of the primary will still have an opponent in the general election.
Democrats are pulling the sham in the Miami-Dade state attorney’s race. Republicans are pulling it in two Florida House races and a school superintendent race in Pasco County. The political concubines of Flagler County Republicans pulled the same trick in four races, though they ended up closing just two — for county commission and clerk of court.
I’m a registered independent in Flagler County. So 40,000 of us voters (out of 67,000 registered voters) will have no say in that leadership.
I was particularly disappointed when I spoke with Charlie Ericksen and Gail Wadsworth, the two contestants who have the most to gain from a closed primary. Ericksen is running for county commission. Wadsworth is the incumbent clerk of court. Neither condemned the practice outright, as they should have, though Ericksen said if it’s unfair, the Legislature could change the rules. Wadsworth actually pretended to take the write-in candidate seriously, and pointed to Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska senator, as an example of write-in success.
How ironic. Murkowski was appointed to a U.S. Senate seat by her father in 2002 in a nepotism coup the size of Mount McKinley. She won election in 2004, but when she lost the primary in 2010, she pulled the sore-loser trick of running again, as a write-in, and won. But she spent $4.6 million to do it. I’d like to see the local write-ins spend $4.60. The only other candidate ever to win a notable write-in campaign in American history was Strom Thurmond, South Carolina’s racist royalty. He did it after being governor and running for president. None of the local write-ins will manage to have more votes than they have Facebook friends. They know it, making their candidacy the cynical ploy it is.
Jim O’Connell, a former Flagler County commissioner, publicly called the trick “legal but immoral.” He was being too kind. The legality of it is more than suspect. Voters made that clear when they overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment designed specifically to forbid this. But an advisory opinion from the state division of elections in 2000 — the same division of elections that gave us Katherine Harris and the 2000 election — declared the scheme permissible.
The fix is in for this election. [Editor’s Note: A lawsuit filed last week asks a federal court to open the Aug. 14 Miami-Dade state attorney’s primary to voters of all parties.]
But it’s never too late for the Legislature to close the loophole. Unfortunately, legislators are getting elected because of it. So expect Florida to continue to be the poster child of election fraud, a one-party state of extremism, where contempt for voters is a winning strategy.
Pierre Tristam is editor and publisher of FlaglerLive.com, a non-profit news service based in Palm Coast.