In 2004, a Democratic candidate for port commissioner in Palm Beach County faced an unusual opponent in the general election: her mother.
But this was no family feud. The elected official put her mother up as a write-in candidate to ensure that Republicans and voters with no party affiliation could not vote in her primary election. The election tactic was so successful that the port commissioner used it again in 2012 and 2016, alternating between her mother and her teenage daughter as the write-in “opponent.”
In 1998, the Constitution Revision Commission placed an amendment on the ballot that says when all candidates in an election come from only one political party, every voter regardless of their party affiliation is able to vote in that primary election. If the only candidates for that particular office are Democrats, for example, then Republicans, No Party Affiliation voters and everyone else can vote in that primary.
That amendment received 64 percent of the vote in 1998 and was added to the Florida Constitution. Two years later, in a Palm Beach County state House race between two Democrats, one of the candidates tried to prevent non-Democrats from voting in the primary election by recruiting a sham write-in candidate. Write-in candidates don’t pay a filing fee or fill out any financial disclosure forms. Their names don’t even appear on the ballot.
Despite this, Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ Division of Elections decreed that a write-in candidate serves to close a primary, thereby disenfranchising thousands of voters and essentially rendering the 1998 constitutional amendment null and void.
Since then, millions of Floridians have been deprived of their right to vote in elections that matter a great deal to them. These write-in candidates never campaign or seek votes. They exist only to take away the vote and close primary elections. The winners in all this are the political consultants, the party bosses and the more partisan politicians, who now don’t have to worry about speaking to voters who think differently than they do.
The losers in all of this are the voters — and government itself, which becomes more partisan and more extreme.
In 2016, when the incumbent state attorney in Duval County ran for re-election against a fellow Republican, the incumbent’s campaign manager drove three hours to Tallahassee to file paperwork for a write-in “opponent” that immediately deprived 440,000 non-Republicans of their right to vote — including 96 percent of all black voters.
Because both Democrats and Republicans engage in these shenanigans, the write-in loophole has now disenfranchised more voters on both sides of the aisle than any other existing voter limitation, from butterfly ballot to felon list, combined.
Today, our political candidates are so brazen about the manipulation that they will file their papers to run for office during qualifying week with their write-in “opponent” in tow. It’s often a friend, supporter or even one’s mother or daughter.
The main argument in favor of this write-in scam is that “only Democrats should vote in Democratic primaries and only Republicans should vote in Republican primaries.” But the voters already rejected this in 1998. The Florida Constitution now guarantees the right for all voters to participate when all the candidates come from the same political party, which is why the loophole created by the former secretary of state remains a blight on Florida democracy.
The will of the voters has to mean something. Democracy has to mean more than gamesmanship and manipulation.
In the coming days, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission has the chance to restore the will of the voters by placing an amendment on the November ballot that would allow Floridians to end the write-in scam. The commission’s vote is expected to be close, even though it shouldn’t be. After all, it is a basic tenet of a democracy that voters get to choose their elected leaders, not the other way around.
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