Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Politics

Romano: How Florida's third-largest political party just ceased to exist

"It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to." Lesley Gore

The party's over. No, really.

The third-largest political party in Florida ceased to exist this week. It was wiped out not by infighting or ideology but by a technicality that may or may not exist.

If that sounds odd, that's par for the course: The Independent Party of Florida has always been slightly off kilter. Not in its views — which are quite moderate — but in its influence.

The party boasted more than 250,000 voters in Florida, which made it 10 times the size of the Libertarian Party and almost 50 times as large as the Green Party.

And yet it rarely fielded candidates, much less winners.

Critics say it's because the party's numbers are inflated. Not the actual number of registered voters, which is verified, but the voters who knowingly chose that affiliation.

The suspicion is many voters wrote "independent'' on registration forms, with the intent of not belonging to a party. Instead, they became Independents with a capital I.

"At least anecdotally, we see that a lot when registering high school students," said Jason Latimer, communications director for the Pinellas County supervisor of elections. "They'll tell us they're independents, and we explain that's perfectly fine, but just understand that means you belong to the Independent Party. If you don't want to be in a party, you need to select 'no party affiliation.' "

Independent Party chairman Ernie Bach, a former Largo city commissioner, says the confusion angle is overblown. He concedes some people might have made that mistake, but current registration forms have boxes for "no party affiliation" and "minor party."

That argument, however, is for another day.

Right now, Bach is upset with what he calls an unnecessary and illogical crusade by the state's Division of Elections to wipe out the Independent Party. And he has a point.

This goes back to 2014, when the party had an accountant do an annual audit, as required by law. The state later notified Bach that the audit must be done by a certified public accountant.

Bach points out that the state statute merely requires the party be "publicly audited" and says nothing about a CPA. He also argues that the state allowed the same accountant to perform the party's audits the previous five years.

Finally, he says the state has provisions for parties to claim economic hardships. And considering the Independent Party typically has $500 to $700 in its account and can't afford a CPA, that seems relevant.

"It's been a bureaucratic boondoggle," Bach said.

It could also be a costly boondoggle for taxpayers. Elections supervisors have had to mail letters to the 250,000 Independent Party voters to notify them they no longer have a party affiliation.

In Pinellas, that meant slightly fewer than 20,000 letters that also included stamped envelopes inside for anyone wishing to return another registration form with a new party affiliation.

Which, by the way, Bach is already preparing for.

When he realized the state was going to nuke his party, he resubmitted paperwork for a new Florida Independent Party. He said the state's general counsel told him Tuesday that the application had been accepted and would become official as soon as the 67 supervisors acknowledge they have notified everyone that the original party has been purged.

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