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Pasco Democrats to sue over write-in candidate

Democrats are going to court to challenge the write-in candidacy of John M. Taylor, who recently filed to run in the hotly contested race for the County Commission District 1 seat.

The election originally included two Republicans, incumbent Ted Schrader and John Nicolette, a part-time firefighter and son-in-law of retired county attorney Robert Sumner. Because both were from the same party, 170,000 Democrats and other voters would have been able to cast ballots in the Aug. 26 primary until Taylor filed earlier this month.

A loophole in state law considers a write-in candidate an outside opponent and closes the primary.

Leading the Democrats' charge is state Sen. Dave Aronberg, of Greenacres, who earlier launched a statewide fight against the use of write-in candidates to close elections to only members of the candidates' party. He is getting free help from New Port Richey lawyer Robert Altman, a Democrat who also is running for clerk of the circuit court.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Steve Byle, a Democrat from Hudson, and Deborah Lopez, a voter with no party affiliation and the wife of Zephyrhills City Council member Luis Lopez. They seek Taylor's disqualification as a write-in candidate, which would open up the election to them and all Pasco County voters.

Neither could be reached Monday for comment.

Aronberg, who unsuccessfully challenged the loophole in Lake County, said he learned of the Pasco situation through an Internet search engine that forwards any related articles to his e-mail.

He said Taylor's candidacy was a blatant violation and quickly gathered a legal team. He said the scope of Taylor's case is more limited than the one in Lake County, which challenged the constitutionality of the loophole.

"It's more limited, but we hope it will be effective," he said. Aronberg said he hopes to get a speedy decision so ballots can be printed on time.

Pasco County Democratic chairwoman Alison Morano, who said she was swamped during qualifying season, got involved after she started getting calls from upset voters who had read newspaper stories about Taylor's filing.

In finding plaintiffs, she wanted to make sure she got a nonparty voter involved as well as a Democrat. She called Lopez, who lives in District 1, "a perfect fit."

Her husband, Luis, occupies a nonpartisan seat on the Zephyrhills City Council, "but he's always fighting for Democrats and for people to have their rights," Morano said.

She said that with more painful budget cuts on the horizon, she thought "everyone should be able to vote for County Commission." But she stopped short of endorsing a candidate since no Democrats were running, saying "we'll leave that to voters."

In 1998, voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that opens primary elections to all voters if all candidates in the race come from the same political party. But in 2000, a State Division of Elections opinion said that write-in candidates close primary elections because they are considered a general election candidate, even though they pay no filing fee, collect no petition signatures and their names never appear on the ballot.

In 2007, Aronberg was able to pass an amendment that began to tighten the reins on write-in candidates by requiring them to live in the district they seek to represent.

"The residency requirement was intended for cases like this one, where neither the candidacy nor the home address is real," Aronberg said.

The lawsuit, filed in Pasco County Circuit Court, names John M. Taylor and Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley as defendants.

It alleges that Taylor lives outside District 1 and thus is ineligible to run as a write-in candidate. Although Taylor says he lives in the district, he claims his homestead exemption on a home outside the district, and his occupational license lists his home as outside the district. In fact, the lawsuit alleges that the home Taylor claims as his residence is actually the residence of a couple unrelated to Taylor.

"We are confident that this lawsuit will give thousands of Pasco residents the right to choose their county commissioner, and hopefully deter future sham candidates from outside the district who attempt to manipulate elections," Altman said.

He said he hoped Taylor "would do the right thing and remove himself as a write-in candidate."

Taylor could not be reached for comment Monday.

Corley said his office had printed about 6,000 ballots but he halted production as soon as he got wind of the lawsuit. He said he hopes the matter can be resolved quickly so his staff can mail out 2,000 ballots to overseas voters by July 21, the date required by law.

Already they've begun discussing what-ifs.

"In running an election, you always have to have a Plan B," he said. "And you also have to have a Plan C and D."

Schrader declined to comment on the lawsuit except to reiterate that he had nothing to do with Taylor's candidacy.

"I have no trouble putting my record before Republicans or all the voters of Pasco County," he said.

Pasco Republican chairman Bill Bunting had no comment on the lawsuit and reiterated that he doesn't know Taylor.

Nicolette said he didn't write the law that allows write-in candidates to close primaries but that if people are dissatisfied, they should get the Legislature to change it.

He questioned why the Democrats didn't put up a candidate for District 1.

"This is the Democrats' fault," he said. "This is a Republican primary and in a Republican primary Republicans should pick their candidates. Those who have worked hard will be the winner."

Lisa Buie can reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Pasco Democrats to sue over write-in candidate 06/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 3, 2008 10:26am]
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