Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Phantom write-in candidates bar more than a million voters from Florida elections

TALLAHASSEE — In his secretive and impossible bid for public office, James Bailey will accomplish only this: He will deprive thousands of residents from voting for their state legislator.

Bailey, 28, is a write-in candidate for a state House seat in Vero Beach, a three-hour drive from his home in Clearwater. He's not campaigning or raising money. He faces possible fines for refusing to file routine campaign paperwork. He won't answer phone calls and e-mails.

Yet his sham candidacy is manipulating the outcome of a race involving four Republicans. Because only one party fielded candidates, the primary should serve as a general election where all voters, not just Republicans, cast ballots. Such a "universal" primary is the intent behind a 1998 constitutional amendment passed by Florida voters to open up one-party contests to the entire electorate.

But this year, Bailey and 34 other people have filed as write-in legislative candidates across Florida, exploiting a notorious loophole that nullifies the amendment's purpose. Even though write-in candidates have never won an election, state courts regard them as legitimate candidates. In races like House District 54, that means Bailey's candidacy shuts out independent and Democrat voters in the primary.

Write-ins are blocking full voter participation in six Senate districts and 14 House districts on the Aug. 30 primary ballot, disenfranchising 1.6 million voters. Shrinking the voter pool allows candidates to tailor messages to the extremes: the most conservative or most liberal voters in their party. The result could mean more lawmakers at the far ends of the political spectrum.

Election officials are fed up with the practice and the refusal of both parties or the Legislature to fix it.

"This wink-wink, nod-nod causes people to distrust the process," said Mike Ertel, supervisor of elections in Seminole County. "It's gamesmanship. It's been going on for years, and has to change."

The trail of mischief is easy to follow.

Bailey, a registered Republican and Florida State University graduate, used to work at Front Line Strategies, a Tallahassee firm that is managing campaigns of Republican candidates in eight legislative races where write-ins have closed primaries.

Front Line's client in House District 54 is Lange Sykes, whose campaign has paid the firm nearly $38,000 this election cycle.

"There's going to be some very upset people when they go to the polls and are told, 'You can't vote,' " said another candidate, the Rev. Dale Glading, a Baptist minister. "It's legal. But it's not ethical."

Neither Sykes nor Front Line founder Brett Doster responded to requests for comment.

Eight attempts by the Times/Herald to reach Bailey, who makes $31,054 as a student adviser at St. Petersburg College, were unsuccessful.

The gate to his Clearwater complex was locked. A man who answered a call box phone identified himself as James Bailey and said, "Oh, you want my son," but the young Bailey did not respond to two more messages.

More than a dozen other write-in candidates, whose name must be written on the ballot by the voter in the November general election, were similarly elusive.

MaryKathryn Johnson, 22, of St. Petersburg, a write-in who closed a Republican Senate primary in a Naples-based Senate district, refused to talk to a reporter at her home.

"I don't want to answer any questions. Sorry," Johnson said when asked why she's running in a district 150 miles away.

Johnson and a second write-in candidate closed a spirited Republican primary between state Reps. Matt Hudson and Kathleen Passidomo. She said neither asked her to run. Asked if she knew her candidacy would deny thousands a chance to vote, she said, "I can't answer any questions" and shut the door.

Kelley Howell's write-in papers closed a Democratic primary for a Palm Beach County House seat between former Rep. Kelly Skidmore and Emily Slosberg.

Howell, 47, a Democrat, did not respond to phone and email messages. She faces possible fines for missing deadlines for campaign finance reports, records show.

Jason Swaby, 22, a grad student at FSU, became a write-in candidate in Senate District 31 an hour before the June 24 filing deadline, closing a Democratic primary among Sen. Jeff Clemens, Rep. Irv Slosberg and newcomer Emmanuel Morel.

"Can you give me a call tomorrow? I'm making dinner," said Swaby, who did not respond to followup calls.

Both Clemens and Slosberg say they had nothing to do with Swaby's candidacy.

"I and my staff didn't put him in there," Slosberg said. "I wouldn't even know how to do the whole thing."

Slosberg switched his candidacy and challenged Clemens an hour before the filing deadline. Clemens said he did not expect that, and did not recruit Swaby.

"I didn't even know I was going to have a race. How could I have possibly anticipated that?" Clemens said.

The only write-in candidate willing to discuss his motives was Christopher Schwantz, who filed in House District 4, an open seat in the Panhandle, where the other five candidates are Republicans.

Schwantz has not raised any money and isn't campaigning. He said no one recruited him to run.

In justifying his candidacy, he said that primaries should be closed.

"The system is set up that Republicans can elect Republicans and Democrats can elect Democrats," he said. "I don't want someone playing both sides of the fence."

But under Florida law, Democrats should be allowed to vote in the House District 4 primary. Schwantz's candidacy ensures that they won't.

As born losers go, write-ins have it easy.

Party candidates whose names appear on the ballot must pay up to $1,552 or collect hundreds of signatures. Write-ins are required only to fill out some paperwork.

They face few penalties for ignoring campaign finance laws because fines are based on a percentage of money raised. Most write-ins raise nothing.

"People don't know about it until they are disenfranchised," said Dave Aronberg, the Palm Beach County state attorney who tried as a Democratic state senator to close the loophole. "It really is the most insidious election scam that's commonly exploited by our politicians."

Aronberg said it will require another constitutional amendment to close the write-in loophole. Passage would be difficult, he said, because both parties and moneyed interests would work to close the open primaries that give more nonpartisan voters a greater say in shaping the Legislature.

"It benefits politicians at the expense of the voters," he said. "It harms our democracy. It makes people less likely to vote because it creates more cynicism on the political process."

Times/Herald staff writers Samuel Howard, Jack Suntrup and Tracey McManus and Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.

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