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Write-in loophole is tilting ballots throughout state

TALLAHASSEE — Northern Hillsborough and Pasco voters will have two choices for state senator on the November ballot: the winner of the Republican primary or a blank line for a write-in candidate's name.

It's the same case in a Miami Senate district and in 10 House races across Florida. In both Senate races, only about two-fifths of all eligible voters will choose the person to represent the entire district in the Legislature.

"This is yet another rule that protects politicians from the people," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, a staunch critic of the so-called write-in loophole. "It's like an East German election. You've got one name and then you've got a line."

Florida's Constitution says that if all the candidates for an office are in the same party and face no opposition in the general election, then all registered voters will be allowed to vote in the primary. After that was adopted in 1998, both political parties found an easy way around it: recruiting write-in candidates to run as general election opponents.

The state Division of Elections issued an opinion in 2000 saying the opposition doesn't have to be "viable or have a realistic chance of success." And in 2007, a judge in Lake County upheld the law.

Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee attorney who argued the Lake County case, said write-ins were "never on the radar" of the committee that proposed the change: "It was very clear that they didn't intend 'opposition' to be solely a write-in candidate."

Besides the Hillsborough Senate race that pits Rep. Kevin Ambler against Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman, there are 10 House seats with similar closed primaries.

In one, Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, is running for re-election in a district that stretches from south St. Petersburg to Sarasota. His Democratic primary against April Sheffield would have been open to all voters — except for the entry of a Sarasota write-in candidate named Joseph Graser.

Graser, 32, works at a Sarasota Winn-Dixie and collects Social Security payments. He also holds the distinction of being the very last candidate to qualify for the ballot, slipping in seconds before the noon deadline on June 18.

"I wasn't afraid of an open primary," said Rouson, who supports Charlie Crist's campaign for U.S. Senate and endorsed Jeb Bush for re-election bid in 2002. "I believe that I might have done stronger had Republicans been allowed to vote in my race."

Aronberg, who is now a candidate for attorney general, has pushed legislation for years that he says would fix the loophole in most cases. It would require write-ins to run in the primary that matches their voter registration. Most write-in candidates are members of the same party as the major-party candidates who are already in the race.

Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos was ambivalent about the practice as a campaign strategy.

"There's a lot of smoke there, but I'm not sure there's much fire," said the Merritt Island Republican. "If the other party refuses to put up a candidate, that's their choice."

The write-ins this year are quite the cast of characters.

Derek Crabb is a 30-year-old Odessa resident who works at a Petco store in Carrollwood for $29,500 a year. He also works the night shift at a Target for $2,400 more, campaign records show.

Reached at work recently, Crabb spoke hurriedly.

When asked why he is running, he said, "I don't think I want to comment on that." Pressed for an answer, he said, "Without disclosing too much, I want my voice to be heard." Pressed further, he added, "I'm trying to lay low right now."

A second write-in candidate in the race, 20-year-old Kimberly Renspie, attends Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., and elections records show she is a resident adviser and an admissions counselor. According to her Facebook profile, she graduates in 2012.

Renspie did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Ambler, a Tampa Republican seeking to replace term-limited Sen. Victor Crist, said he is wary of Crabb and Renspie, and suggested they might have been put up by his rival, Norman.

"My first thought was, my opponent might want a closed primary, so maybe he recruited this person," Ambler said in a previous interview about the ballot. He could not be reached for this report.

Norman called the accusation "laughable" and noted that Ambler encouraged a Florida State student to run against him as a write-in candidate in 2008. That move allowed the otherwise-unopposed Ambler to keep raising and spending money for his campaign.

"I'm running a hard, fast, tough race," Norman said. "I've never known these people. I don't know anything about them."

Time staff writers Marlene Sokol, Mary Ellen Klas and John Martin contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Write-in loophole is tilting ballots throughout state 06/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 11:38pm]

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