Florida Supreme Court gives boost to write-in candidates

Published February 5 2016
Updated February 5 2016

Write-in candidates rarely get more than a handful of votes and are often suspected of being part of political shenanigans.

But the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday gave a boost to write-ins when it ruled that a state election law is unconstitutional.

The ruling stemmed from a 2014 race for a Broward County Commission seat. Tyron Francois submitted qualifying papers as a write-in candidate for the race, which otherwise included only Democratic candidates. Also, of note, Francois did not live within the district boundaries.

While Francois stood little chance of winning, his candidacy was important because it would "close" the Democratic primary, meaning that only Democratic voters could cast primary ballots. Voters in 1998 approved a constitutional amendment that opens primaries to all voters if every candidate is from the same party.

Jennifer Brinkmann, a Republican voter in the district, filed a legal challenge to Francois' candidacy based on a state law that said write-ins have to live within the district boundaries at the time of qualifying. A circuit judge agreed with Brinkmann, prompting appeals.

But the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a 4th District Court of Appeal ruling that said the state law at issue in the Francois case is unconstitutional. That is because the law places a different standard on write-in candidates than other candidates, who are not required to live in the districts at the time of qualifying. Those candidates are required to live in the districts at the time of election.

"This (Supreme) Court has long-instructed that statutes may not impose qualification requirements for public office over and above those set forth in the Florida Constitution… As such, if any provision of the Florida Constitution provides qualifications for an office of county commissioner, then the Legislature is prohibited from imposing additional qualifications,'' said the opinion, written by Justice James E.C. Perry and joined fully by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince. Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston agreed with the outcome but did not sign onto the opinion.

In the case, Brinkmann also argued that write-in candidates should not be considered "opposition" that would trigger closing primaries. The Supreme Court also rejected that argument.

Write-in candidates, however, have often been suspected of taking part in ploys to close primaries and help other candidates. As a hypothetical example, a conservative Republican and a moderate Republican could be in a two-candidate race. It might benefit the conservative to have a closed primary that would only involve ballots cast by GOP voters, rather than opening up the primary to all voters.

Brinkmann's attorneys touched on such scenarios in a brief filed in the Supreme Court. The brief said the 1998 constitutional amendment about open primaries "would be rendered meaningless if the primary election remained closed as a result of the mere presence of a write-in candidate who has the same party affiliation as all of the other candidates. Any time a candidate desired a closed primary, that candidate would only need to recruit a fellow party member to act as a write-in candidate, thereby closing the primary to voters outside the party."