TALLAHASSEE — A circuit judge Tuesday ordered election officials to start the process of finding a replacement for state Senate candidate Jim Norman.
Court appeals, though, could delay that — even as Norman's name continues to appear on ballots for Senate District 12 while early voters cast ballots.
State elections officials asked Tallahassee Judge Jackie Fulford on Tuesday to allow Norman to remain the candidate until he completes an appeal of an earlier court ruling that removed him from the election to represent parts of northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties.
But Fulford rejected that request, and ruled there is a "vacancy in nomination." That means the state Division of Elections needs to notify Pasco and Hillsborough Republican Party executive committees that they must name a replacement for Norman, who is a Hillsborough County commissioner.
Jennifer Davis, a Division of Elections spokesman, said the office may appeal that ruling.
"We are evaluating our next steps," Davis said.
That evaluation, she said, includes considering appeals filed by Norman and Kevin Ambler, who sued to have Norman kicked off the ballot because he had failed to list an Arkansas house deal on his state-required financial disclosure form.
Ambler, a state representative who lost to Norman in the Aug. 24 GOP primary, plans to appeal Fulford's decision not to name him as Norman's replacement. Ambler's attorneys argue that because Fulford ruled Norman was ineligible to run in August, Ambler is the only qualified Republican candidate.
"It's as if he never showed up," attorney Mark Herron said of Norman. "That being the case, one candidate did show up. One candidate did qualify. One candidate is there. That candidate is Kevin Ambler."
During Tuesday's hearing, Fulford acknowledged her ruling has left the nomination up in the air as Election Day approaches: "The uncertainty existed, continues to exist and will exist until the appellate court rules," she said.
Early voting started Monday. Eventually, voters will see a printed notice at the polling places saying a vote for Norman will count for the candidate designated by the party.
Travis Abercrombie, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections, said the office is waiting for the formal wording from the Division of Elections before putting up the notices.
"As soon as we can, we are going to comply with the judge's ruling," Abercrombie said. "We're going to put notice at each polling place, each polling booth and each absentee ballot not sent to voters."
According to state law, if a party is left without a nominee because a candidate has been removed from the ballot, the party can pick a replacement.
In this case, those duties would fall to six people: the chairmen of the Pasco and Hillsborough GOP parties and their state committee men and women.
Party chairmen must call a meeting to pick the replacement within five days of being notified by the Division of Elections that there is a vacancy in nomination. They have seven days to submit the name of the new candidate to state election officials.
Bill Bunting, Pasco's state committeeman, said Pasco GOP officials met but made no decision Monday night on eight potential nominees.
Six of those candidates are from Pasco and two from Hillsborough, he said. But he would not disclose their identities or say whether any ran for office in the current election cycle.
A day earlier, however, Bunting had confirmed that Kathryn Starkey, who lost the Republican primary for House District 45, and Wilton Simpson, an east Pasco farmer and businessman, were among the names.
Starkey confirmed that. Simpson said he talked with Pasco GOP Chairman Randy Maggard, but said he preferred that Norman be renamed to the ballot.
Hillsborough officials get a greater say in the choice because of the county's population, but Bunting said members also recognize the number of Pasco residents in the district has grown.
He said the only thing to expect is a conservative candidate. "We don't need someone like Gov. Flip Flop," he said referring to Gov. Charlie Crist. "We've got to give them someone similar to who represented them last year."
In 2006, the last time the District 12 seat came up for election, 84,951 voted for Republican Victor Crist and 34,528 voted for his opponent, Constitution Party candidate C. Burt Linthicum,
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.