Thirty five candidates who stand no chance of winning state office wield immense power over Florida's primary elections. They are the write-ins, sham candidates whose participation is allowed because of a legal loophole state legislators refuse to close. Their names don't appear on the ballot, yet they are allowed, election after election, to close off races to single political parties, disenfranchising millions of voters and fostering cynicism. The best solution is for Florida to open its primaries, allowing voters of any party (or no party) to vote. Short of that, the write-in scam should be eliminated.
An amendment to Florida's Constitution was supposed to settle this issue. Voters approved a 1998 amendment that says primaries in which only one political party fields candidates should be open to all voters. So if two Republicans file to run in a state House race but no Democrats enter, then all voters, regardless of party registration, would get to vote in the "universal" primary. It's only fair that everyone should vote when the primary is, in effect, the general election.
But the notion of such widespread voter participation did not sit well in Tallahassee, where a legal loophole found daylight in the form of write-in candidacies. The courts, as recently as this year, have upheld the notion that write-in candidates are legitimate, so legislation clarifying the intent of the amendment is needed. Repeated efforts to pass such a bill have failed, and that is no accident. The two main political parties want to maintain control over elections, and keeping the pool of voters smaller serves that interest.
The toll is millions of disenfranchised voters. As Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet reported, write-in candidates in six state Senate races and 14 state House races have banished 1.6 million voters from the Aug. 30 primary. The damage trickles down to the local level, too. In Pinellas County, only Republicans will get to choose the next property appraiser after a write-in candidate jumped in that race.
When write-in candidates say why they're running — and it's rare that they do — the explanation is blatantly partisan. Christopher Schwantz, who closed the primary as a write-in for a Panhandle House seat, told the Times/Herald that "the system is set up that Republicans can elect Republicans and Democrats can elect Democrats. I don't want someone playing both sides of the fence." Someone should remind Schwantz that 64 percent of Florida voters wanted it that way when they passed the 1998 constitutional amendment.
More often, write-in candidates have nothing to say. They file their requisite paperwork and disappear into the shadows, ducking any accountability. If they aren't partisan activists such as Schwantz, they're recruited ringers such as James Bailey, who used to work for a Tallahassee firm that is managing eight legislative campaigns where write-ins have closed primaries. Bailey, who lives in Clearwater, filed for a House seat in Vero Beach, so now all registered Democrats there are blocked from having a say in choosing their next representative. Bailey, who isn't talking, is following the typical write-in playbook.
The 35 write-in candidates in the Aug. 30 primary set a new record in Florida. Short of a change in statute or another constitutional amendment reaching the ballot, the powers that be in Tallahassee will continue to shamelessly exploit this loophole. And the outcome is always the same: Write-in candidates never win, and the voters always lose.