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Write-in ploy cheats the voters

The state attorney is one of those countywide positions that’s high profile and in the crosshairs of the political winds, criticized for being either too tough on the young and the foolish or too soft on the bad guys. But never, ever, “has a blank space on a general election ballot operated to close a winner-take-all state attorney primary in the state of Florida.”

So says the complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief filed by the attorneys for Miami-Dade voters Vincent J. Mazzilli, who’s not affiliated with any political party, and Armando Lacasa, a registered Republican. They have filed a federal lawsuit against Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley, the accidental defendant in this latest case of write-in candidates perversely denying the public’s will and civil rights.

As an independent, unaffiliated voter the past 20 or so years, I’m cheering for justice to be done and for this Democratic primary between State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Rod Vereen be opened for all of Miami-Dade’s nearly 1.3 million voters. Otherwise, only Democrats (43 percent of all county voters) will have a say in electing our next chief prosecutor — all thanks to the manipulation of write-in candidates who don’t have to raise a penny to pay a filing fee or gather signatures to “earn” their little blank space on the general election ballot.

These phantom candidates — often doing the bidding for one of the candidates in a primary who sees better chances of getting elected with fewer voters able to choose — never get more than a handful of votes (according to voting records going back 25 years, less than one-third of one percent!) from their friends and family.

In this race, it would mean that the winner in the Democratic primary would run against a blank space for write-ins on the general election ballot — guaranteeing that only Democrats will have elected the winner. The presence of just one of these invisible write-ins — you rarely see them in public appearances or fund-raisers; they don’t put up campaign signs or answer reporters’ phone calls or emails — essentially turns a one-party primary into a general election.

They’re denying 700,000 Republican or independent voters in Miami-Dade any say in the prosecutor’s race. That’s not what Florida voters intended in 1998 when they voted nearly 2-1 for open primaries when there’s no opposing-party candidate in the general election.

Back in the 1980s, I was writing columns in Orlando pressing the Legislature to open primaries to all unaffiliated voters, as other states have done. Otherwise, unaffiliated voters are forced to sit on our hands and wait for the general election, often too late to make a difference in the decision. Oh, I know, I’m such a dreamer, because that issue went nowhere in partisan Tallahassee.

But as the number of registered unaffiliated voters began to balloon (now about 25 percent of Miami-Dade voters, 23 percent in Broward and 20 percent statewide) — a sign of the mostly moderate voters’ disgust with the two major parties selling out to special interests in Florida — serendipity happened. The state’s Constitution Revision Commission — which meets every 10 years to consider Florida constitutional amendments to be put before voters — decided in 1998 that all voters should weigh in in open primaries when there’s no opposing party candidate in the general election. I was happy with that half-loaf.

And yet, to this day, I haven’t been able to vote in a primary because of those pesky write-ins.

You can thank Katherine Harris, not known for a brilliant legal mind, for issuing an opinion in 2000 when she was secretary of state, deciding that write-ins were enough to close the primary. Since then, there’s been an explosion of write-ins who act as spoilers for voters and, of course, never win. They’re usually planted by one party’s candidate or another.

From 1978, “in the 11 election cycles immediately prior to the Katherine Harris opinion,” the brief prepared by attorneys for the law firms of Colson Hicks Eidson and Ross & Girten points out, “only 30 general elections included write-in candidates statewide. In the six subsequent election cycles from 2000 through 2010, 131 general elections included write-in candidates statewide — an increase of 337 percent in just over half as many cycles.”

Of course, Miami-Dade, ever the funny-business leader in the state, has seen the number of write-ins jump during that same period by 1,200 percent. State House and Senate seats seem to be of particular interest to the phantom write-ins and their handlers.

The manipulators have had their fun. It’s past time for a federal judge to give us clarity — or, heaven forbid, lock out 57 percent of county voters, most of them Hispanic. And if the ruling gets delayed there may be legal wiggle room for the county mayor, who hires the elections supervisor, to open up the election until the federal court rules.

State attorney write-in phantoms Michele Samaroo and T. Omar Malone, wherever you are, thanks for starting this mess. Maybe this time the disenfranchisement will end at last.