Sunday, December 17, 2017
Politics

Judge throws write-in candidate off ballot, canceling primary in House District 64

TALLAHASSEE — Until Thursday, it looked like state Rep. Jamie Grant would know within a few weeks whether he'd get to keep his job representing the citizens of Carrollwood, Citrus Park, Oldsmar and Safety Harbor.

But now a judge's ruling disqualifying his write-in opponent means the August primary in the House District 64 seat is canceled. Instead, the contest will have to wait until Nov. 4, even though both Grant and his remaining opponent are Republicans.

It's the latest case highlighting the outsized power write-in candidates wield in Florida elections, and it's likely to wind up in the state Supreme Court.

Here's what happened: Grant fielded two opponents, Republican Miriam Steinberg and write-in Donald John Matthews.

If not for Matthews, Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters could have cast ballots in the Aug. 26 primary, since it would have been the only election for the seat.

But when a write-in candidate enters a race, it automatically triggers a general election. The primary election is then open only to members of one party, in this case Republicans.

Thursday, Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey ruled that Matthews is not eligible to run because he didn't live in District 64 when he qualified.

With him out of the race, all voters should be able to cast ballots in the Grant versus Steinberg contest. But it's too late now, since ballots have been printed and early voting has started. So, the judge decided, the primary should be canceled and the election held in November.

The Hillsborough and Pinellas supervisors of elections released a joint statement: "Primary ballots have already been printed, so voters will be instructed that any votes cast in this race during the primary election will not be tabulated," the statement said.

Notices will be added to ballots sent by mail and at precincts during early voting and on Election Day to ensure voters are aware that even though the District 64 race is on the ballot, any votes cast will not be counted.

Matthews' attorney said he will appeal.

But Steinberg's attorney was pleased — though he lost a similar case filed in a Broward County district.

"They've set things up for a final showdown in the (Florida) Supreme Court," said Michael Steinberg, who filed the initial lawsuit against Matthews on behalf of his wife, candidate Miriam Steinberg.

Michael Steinberg also represented a candidate for a Broward House seat who filed suit against a different write-in candidate.

Leon Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds ruled last week in that case that write-in candidates are required to live in the district only upon election, not at qualifying. Reynolds rejected the lawsuit to disqualify Ronald Bray from running as a write-in candidate for House District 96.

The conflicting opinions mean the residency issue is likely to be challenged all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

A write-in candidate has never won a legislative race but, as these cases show, can still be a game-changer. This quirk in state law is often used as a tool to close off access to primary elections to all but one party's voters.

Grant said Thursday afternoon that he isn't troubled by the latest turn of events.

"The Steinbergs are more than welcome to try and win an election in the courtroom. Our campaign is going to win an election at voters' doors and in the community," Grant said.

This is the second time Grant has landed in the news this week.

The Florida Commission on Ethics ruled in his favor on Wednesday by deciding he had not misused his position as a state lawmaker to benefit a phosphate mining company that funded a grant awarded to his personal business venture in Hardee County. The commission also decided there was no probable cause validating an allegation that Grant had a conflict when he voted on legislation that related to taxes on phosphate mining.

Staff writers Kathleen McGrory and Rochelle Koff contributed to this report. Contact Tia Mitchell at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected] Follow @tbtia.

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