Legislating in a fit of pique is never a good idea. It undermines the integrity of the political process, and it often results in unintended consequences and bad law. That's what happened when the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature banned candidates from switching political parties within a year of the qualification deadline for the ballot. The law is constitutionally suspect and threatens to disfranchise many potential candidates — including those who would have run as Republicans.
The new law was not predicated on any desire by legislators to improve the electoral process. It was an angry response to then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the Republican Party in 2010 to run as an independent in the midst of a difficult U.S. Senate primary battle against the eventual winner, former House Speaker Marco Rubio. Under the new law, any candidate in a partisan election would be required to be a registered member of their political party for 365 days before the qualifying deadline. That is far too restrictive and unreasonably limits the options of candidates to associate themselves with whatever political party they choose.
Candidates switch parties for a variety of political, philosophical, strategic, pragmatic, financial and mercenary reasons. It should be up to the voters to decide if those reasons are valid enough to warrant their vote. And the new law already has claimed its first victim. Former Republican state Sen. Nancy Argenziano — who left the party earlier this year to register as a member of the Independent Party — had wanted to run as a Democratic congressional candidate against Panama City Republican Rep. Steve Southerland in 2012. But Argenziano switched parties too late to qualify as a Democrat. She still intends to run as an Independent Party candidate.
The new rules also will undercut countless potential tea party candidates seeking office. They are now precluded from running as Republicans unless they were already registered Republican voters as of June 8, 2011. The Legislature has effectively created an incumbency protection act to save the political careers of Republican officeholders against tea party upstarts. It was establishment Republicans who courted and exploited tea party support to only now make it more hypocritically problematic for tea party adherents to participate in the party.
Republicans may pay a price for their political mischief if independent tea party candidates denied the opportunity to run as Republicans dilute the vote in tight races and open the door to Democrats. Membership in a political party should not require a time-stamped, yearlong contract. Candidates should not have their constitutional rights of free association denied by such arbitrary constraints, and the Legislature should repeal the law before a court overturns it.