Write-in candidates can create havoc in local elections

They are the candidates you don’t see. They don’t collect signatures or pay fees to run. They almost never raise or spend money. They don’t attend campaign forums or knock on doors. Their names never appear on the ballot. And they always lose.

Yet, write-in candidates matter in Florida.

When they run, voters lose.

This year alone, more than 900,000 Floridians were stopped from casting a ballot in 15 competitive state House and Senate races because a write-in candidate signed up to run.

It’s a loophole in Florida’s quirky election system that can be exploited to prevent Democrats and independents from choosing a representative from among only Republican candidates, and vice versa.

“It’s a sham,” said Carl Domino, a Jupiter Republican.

Domino, 68, lost a four-way race in Palm Beach and Martin counties in August after a write-in candidate filed to face the Republican nominee in November’s general election. That meant Democrats and registered independents could not vote for Domino or any of the other announced state House candidates.

“People should be able to choose their own representative, but write-ins prevent that from happening,” Domino said. “It’s anti-democratic.”

It might sound egalitarian to allow someone with no money or broad support to run. But it doesn’t work that way. Not one has ever won.

Despite those odds, they are as popular as ever. Thirty write-in candidates qualified for the Nov. 6 election — the most since 2004.

Here’s why: As gimmicks, write-ins always work.

Florida has a closed primary system, in which only voters with the same party affiliation as the candidates get to vote. In races where there are no candidates from other parties in the general election, however, all voters are allowed to participate because the primary’s outcome will determine the ultimate winner.

But if a write-in files to run in the general election, the primary remains closed.

Unlike minor-party candidates or independents, the names of write-ins are not on the ballot. Instead, they get a space on the ballot for their names. Candidates whose names appear on the ballot must pay more than $1,000 to qualify or collect at least 500 signatures. Write-ins are required only to fill out some paperwork.

In Miami-Dade, write-in candidates sprout like weeds. This year they closed eight House primaries, six for Republicans and two for Democrats.

“Dade County politics is a different breed from the rest of the state,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic consultant. “It’s a lot more aggressive.”

When Raul Robayna filed to run as a write-in candidate in House District 105, he cost more than 42,000 people the right to vote in Broward, Collier and Miami-Dade counties.

“That kind of sucks,” Robayna said. “I didn’t realize that would happen.”

Robayna does not have a political background. A 24-year-old construction management student at Florida International University, Robayna said he decided to run as a lark.

“I just wanted to see how the whole system worked,” Robayna said.

But he acknowledged that he has done nothing since filing in June to run.

“I was very curious, and I stopped being curious,” Robayna said. “I don’t know. I switch interests a lot.”

Robayna said he doesn’t know his opponent — Rep. Carlos Trujillo, who won the Republican primary by defeating Paul Crespo. Coincidentally, Robayna and Trujillo both graduated from Belen Jesuit Preparatory, an exclusive Miami high school.

Trujillo graduated in 2001 and has been on the school’s alumni board since 2005. Robayna graduated in 2007.

In August, Trujillo, who didn’t return telephone calls or an email seeking comment, told The Miami Herald about how important his former high school is to him now.

“All my law partners are Belen alums,” he said. “My legislative aide is a Belen alum. My campaign manager is a Belen alum. Just about every single person we do business with are Belen alums.”

Crespo said he did not know whether there was collusion between Trujillo and Robayna, but he said it strains credulity to think they don’t know each other.

“That’s a very tight-knit group of graduates,” Crespo said. “It’s hard to believe someone who is as proud of their school and alumni status doesn’t know someone from that school who is running against them.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Voters passed an amendment to Florida’s Constitution in 1998 to prevent closed primaries in races where the winner would be decided before the general election.

Yet this year, 11 Republicans and four Democrats statewide effectively won their seats in closed primaries because of a loophole that then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris created in 2000. She determined that write-in candidates were viable competition and could therefore close a primary.

That interpretation was bolstered this summer when U.S. District Judge William Zloch issued a ruling that allowed write-in candidates to close a Democratic primary in Miami-Dade for state attorney, a decision that effectively excluded 700,000 voters.

“The court today will not declare that these candidacies are futile,” Zloch wrote in July.

Actually, futile would be an apt word to describe this year’s batch of legislative write-ins. Only one bothered to raise money — about $1,000 through late September. The other 29 didn’t raise or spend a dime. Of the 17 write-in candidates who were the only ones left after they closed the 15 legislative primaries, 10 were Republicans facing Republicans and four were Democrats facing Democrats.

Refusing to talk about their candidacies is a common trait for write-ins, none of whom exemplifies it better than Christine Bruha, a 21-year-old Florida State University student who filed to run for House District 2 in Gulf Breeze. Rep. Clay Ford, a Republican first elected to the House in 2007, won the primary. Thanks to Bruha, who is also a Republican, that race was a Republican-only affair.

She raised $0 compared to Ford’s $108,000. The Herald/Times left her a message on Sept. 27 asking why she was running.

She didn’t respond, but a week later Bruha sent a letter to the Florida Department of State declaring she was no longer a candidate.

Too late. By running a campaign in which she didn’t do anything, Bruha made 55 percent of the district, or 57,000 voters, ineligible to vote in the August primary.

Bruha listed her father’s anesthesia clinic as a $10,000 source of income on her financial disclosure form, so the Herald/Times left several messages with him to find out whether he could explain his daughter’s campaign. None were returned.

Upon calling Paul Bruha’s cellphone this week, a woman answered and said the family would sue if the calls continued.

“Christine was through in July,” said a woman who would not identify herself. “If you check your records, it will show that.”

After the Herald/Times sent a photo of the letter showing Bruha dropped out on Oct. 3, a one-sentence text came back from Paul Bruha’s cellphone.

“I will have my lawyer contact you,” it said.