Romano: Florida's write-in loophole shows disdain for voters

 Times (2012)
Times (2012)
Published September 21 2014
Updated September 21 2014

For 14 years, you have been the victim of a scam.

Maybe not directly, and maybe not persistently, but there is little doubt you have been affected. What's worse is this scam is an open secret and has thrived with the tacit approval of lawmakers who sometimes benefit from it.

Its basic premise?

To prevent roughly half of the electorate in any given district from being able to vote in specific races.

Sounds pretty outrageous, doesn't it?

And yet Tallahassee continues to look the other way.

"Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty,'' said Michael Steinberg, a Tampa attorney married to state House candidate Miriam Steinberg. "Both parties use this to thwart the will of the people.''

Politicians invariably describe the situation as a loophole, but that's far too innocuous. What they are doing is using a technicality to keep people out of the voting booth, which sounds more like a crime than a loophole.

This all began in 1998 when Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed for open primaries if all the candidates were from the same party.

It made perfect sense. If the only candidates for a state Senate seat were Democrats, for instance, then independents and Republicans should be allowed to vote in the primary because the winner would win the general election by default.

The spirit of that amendment was obliterated two years later when former Secretary of State Katherine Harris ruled that write-in candidates were legitimate competition.

It didn't matter that write-in candidates are not actually listed on a ballot. Or that they don't have the same standards to qualify. Or that no write-in has ever actually won.

All you needed to close a primary — and effectively shut out a chunk of voters — was for a write-in candidate to show up at the elections office. This includes bogus candidates who don't even pretend to campaign, and candidates simply doing someone else's bidding to eliminate voters.

And it happens all the time.

In one particularly egregious case in Escambia County, a write-in candidate admitted to a reporter that he entered a race only to close a primary. He was actually supporting another candidate, and had her campaign signs in his yard. After she was elected clerk of the court, she hired him at a $60,000 salary.

Closer to home, a state House race has landed in court over a typically flimsy write-in candidacy.

It looked like the only candidates who were planning to run in District 64 were a pair of Republicans, incumbent James Grant and challenger Miriam Steinberg.

Three minutes before the deadline, however, 25-year-old Daniel John Matthews filed as an independent write-in. Presto. Democrats were now forbidden from voting in the primary, which effectively meant they had no say who would be elected.

"Both parties prefer to have candidates who are going to adhere to their message, and so they like closed primaries,'' said Michael Steinberg. "I don't think Grant had anything to do with it. I think he basically knew the Republican Party was going to take care of it for him. It certainly wasn't Daniel Matthews deciding on his own to run.''

Matthews listed his parents' address in Tampa on election forms, but Michael Steinberg determined he actually lived in Tallahassee. Since Matthews didn't live in the district, Steinberg challenged his candidacy based on residency requirements.

A judge agreed and suspended the election since the ballots had already been drawn up for a closed primary. A judge in South Florida, however, ruled differently in a similar case, and now both are being appealed in a higher court.

Those cases will not change the write-in loophole. They will merely clarify residency requirements for write-ins.

And that means this type of abuse will inevitably continue.

State Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, has suggested he will introduce a bill to close the loophole in the next legislative session, but others have tried before and failed.

Michael Steinberg says the time has come for residents to take up the matter themselves. Once the courts rule on his wife's election, Steinberg says he may begin a petition to create a new constitutional amendment to stop the abuse.

Think about how pathetic that sounds:

Our lawmakers have ignored the abuses of a constitutional amendment so willfully that voters may be forced to pass another amendment to finally stop them.

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