TALLAHASSEE — It just got easier to be a write-in candidate in Florida.
On Friday, a Leon County judge struck down a state law requiring write-in candidates to live in the district where they are running for office.
The ruling may seem inconsequential, considering no write-in candidate has ever won an election in Florida. But it could have a profound impact on the state's quirky election system.
In Florida, write-in candidates have a unique power. If all of the candidates in a primary election are from a single political party — meaning the winner of the primary will be the office-holder — all voters can participate regardless of their party affiliation. That changes if a write-in candidate enters the race. Write-in candidates close the primary election to independent voters and members of the other party. As a result, they have become a popular tool to limit voter turnout.
"In almost every case, the write-in candidate is a sham candidate who is there to close the primary and disenfranchise voters," said Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who supports the residency requirement. "We need to close that loophole, not widen it."
Friday's ruling decided a lawsuit against Ronald Bray, a write-in candidate for Florida House District 96.
The district covers Parkland, Coconut Creek and Margate in Broward County. Democratic Rep. Jim Waldman, who currently holds the seat, cannot run for re-election because of term limits.
Bray's decision to run as a write-in candidate closed the primary between the two Democratic candidates: Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs and former state Rep. Steve Perman.
It also prompted a lawsuit from Coconut Creek attorney Robert Adams seeking to have Bray disqualified and the primary opened to Republican and independent voters.
Bray, a University of Miami graduate student, conceded that he lived outside of the district. But his attorney said it didn't matter.
His argument: The Florida Constitution requires state House and Senate candidates to live in the district on the date of the election — not the date they qualify for the race.
"The Legislature cannot make any modifications to that," said Bray's attorney, Michael Moskowitz, adding that only write-in candidates had to satisfy a residency requirement.
The Florida Democratic Party intervened in the case, making a similar case. Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds agreed.
Adams' attorney, Michael Steinberg, said he and his client would consider an appeal, especially because a circuit judge in Broward recently disqualified a write-in candidate for county commission for failing to meet the requirement.
"It's an important case," Steinberg said. "If you don't at least require someone to live in the district, it opens the door to frivolous campaigns from write-in candidates."
Most candidates qualify in one of two ways: They either pay the state qualifying fees, which can top $1,000 depending on the race, or collect a certain number of signatures.
Write-in candidates don't have either requirement. But unlike other candidates, their names do not appear on the ballot.
This year, 26 write-in candidates are running in state House or Senate races. In 14 of those races, the write-in means the primary election is closed to either Democratic or Republican voters.
At least one other write-in candidate is facing a legal challenge over allegations he lives outside of the district.
Steinberg has filed a separate lawsuit against Daniel John Matthews, a write-in candidate in District 64 in Tampa Bay. Steinberg's wife, Miriam, is running as a Republican in the race.
The lawsuit notes that Matthews lists his only source of income as business in Tallahassee, and misspells on handwritten forms the name of the street where he claims to live.
Matthews did not return calls from the Times/Herald. In court documents, he said he had recently attended Florida State University and worked in Tallahassee, but always maintained his residence at his parents' house in Tampa.
"The door to my bedroom even has a sign on it which says 'Danger — Daniel's Room,'" he wrote, submitting a photograph as evidence.
A judge has yet to rule.
The incumbent in the race, Republican Rep. Jamie Grant, told the Times/Herald he was glad there would be a closed primary. But he said he had nothing to do with Matthews' candidacy.
"I don't know the guy," Grant said. "I wouldn't recognize him if he walked through the door."
In Broward, Bray's motives for running as a write-in candidate have drawn scrutiny.
Bray did not return calls from the Times/Herald. His attorney described him as "a young man with an interest in politics and the Democratic process."
"He has a personal philosophy that primaries should be closed to those people who are registered within that particular party," Moskowitz said.
Bray has ties to one of the other candidates in his race. Federal records show he worked as a paid volunteer on Jacobs' 2012 campaign for U.S. Congress.
Jacobs said she and Bray discussed her campaign for state House, but that she had not asked him to run as a write-in candidate.
"He believes that Democrats should be choosing the nominee," Jacobs said. "If the Republicans want a candidate, then they should field one."
The third candidate in the race said he had no relationship with Bray.
"At the end of the day, if it is an open or closed primary, I feel good about my chances," Perman said. "But I don't think it is a core Democratic value to disenfranchise voters."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]