Appellate court sides with Hillsborough Dems, blocks referendum on non-partisan offices

The Second District Court  of Appeal on Wednesday agreed with a circuit judge who blocked Hillsborough from holding a referendum on making constitutional offices like sheriff and tax collector non-partisan.  [Scott Keeler - Times]
The Second District Court of Appeal on Wednesday agreed with a circuit judge who blocked Hillsborough from holding a referendum on making constitutional offices like sheriff and tax collector non-partisan. [Scott Keeler - Times]
Published September 5
Updated September 5

TAMPA – Party affiliation will remain a part of the elections for Hillsborough County's sheriff and other constitutional officers following an appeals court decision Wednesday that kills a move to let voters decide.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal affirmed a ruling by circuit court Judge Robert Foster, who found that switching to nonpartisan elections would be unconstitutional and instructed the Supervisor of Elections to keep a referendum off the Nov. 6 ballot.

The decision effectively sinks the referendum. It was adopted by the Hillsborough County Commission on a  5-2 vote, with Republican members approving of the measure and Democrats opposed.

The appellate court panel of three judges issued no opinion, letting stand the lower court decision and leaving county attorneys little option to file another appeal: The deadline to finalize ballot language is Thursday.

The vote in June by the County Commission prompted the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee to sue the county and the Supervisor of Elections.

The Democrats argued that the move to strip candidates of Democrat or Republican affiliation would result in less voter engagement and amounted to voter suppression.

It also cited a legal precedent in a case out of Orange County where appellate judges sided with the sheriff, tax collector and property appraiser in a lawsuit to restore their party affiliation so they could run as Democrats. The case has been accepted by the Florida Supreme Court.

"We're thrilled," said attorney Ryan Barack, who represented the Hillsborough Democratic Executive Committee. "We're glad the court recognized that voter suppression efforts were unconstitutional."

Rob Brazel, chief assistant county attorney, said the county will not appeal the case further since the Supreme Court will be taking up the issue anyway.

The high court is unlikely to decide the case until early 2019. By then, a new Hillsborough County Commission will be in place since four seats are up for election Nov. 6.

"It would be up to a future board to decide if they want to put it back on the next go around," Brazel said.

Ione Townsend, Hillsborough Democratic Party chairwoman, welcomed the appellate court's decision.

The measure would have moved the election of constitutional offices to the primary election, when turnout typically falls short of general election turnout by 100,000 voters. The result would have been fewer people voting, Townsend said.

"It's mind boggling to me why the county kept pursuing this," she said.

Republicans who backed the plan said it would increase participation since it would mean no-party and minor-party voters could cast a ballot for the offices in the primary elections. Currently, the primary election in those races is open only to voters registered as Republican or Democrat.

Republican Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who proposed the change, said there are no plans to revive it. But he disputes that it was motivated by politics.

"It's frustrating for me that this became a partisan issue," Higginbotham said. "I looked at this as a practical move. "I had the best of intentions when I made the proposal."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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