Write-in candidates almost never win. But because of an arcane loophole in Florida law, such candidates — even though their name will never be printed on a ballot — can indirectly disenfranchise thousands of voters. In four races across Tampa Bay this fall, write-in candidates will keep Republican primaries closed, meaning independent and Democratic voters will have no influence on who will be their next elected official. That's not how democracy should work. The Florida Legislature, which has repeatedly rejected calls for open primaries, should at least change the law to keep primaries open whenever there will be no other candidate's name on the general election ballot.
This write-in gimmick is outrageous no matter which party utilizes it, and Democrats have as well. That's because too often in Florida, write-in candidates aren't Don Quixote types hoping to pull off a win like Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, but rather are allied to another candidate who doesn't want to risk the outcome from an open primary.
This election year, Pasco County Democrats and independents could have voted in the Republican primary for state House District 36 from among term-limted state Sen. Mike Fasano, Michael Kennedy and James Mathieu — until write-in candidate Joseph Antimo Verola joined the race. The same was true in the House District 37 primary pitting Strother Hammond against incumbent Rep. Richard Corcoran — until Timothy Harris announced his write-in campaign.
Even more troubling, 105,256 registered Pasco County Democrats and 76,943 registered independents — who likely all contribute to the tax base that pays for schools — will be prevented from voting in the Republican primary for school superintendent from among Kurt Browning, Heather Fiorentino or Kenneth Benson. Former County Commissioner Ed Collins disingenuously filed to run as a write-in candidate solely to prevent Democrats and independents from having a say in who will lead that county's largest employer.
In state Senate District 22 — which covers downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg — only Republicans will be able to vote for either Rep. Jeff Brandes or Rep. James Frishe because of the arrival of write-in candidate Raymond Baker and because another candidate, Democrat Mark Moon, made an error on his qualification papers.
Sometimes voter disenfranchisement comes down to a single decision — such as Gov. Rick Scott's ill-informed hunt for noncitizen voters that is also jeopardizing the rights of legal voters. But sometimes disenfranchisement is a systemic scheme too long tolerated by the powerful who may well have used it themselves. Republican legislative leaders — including incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel — should ensure that come 2014 at least one systemic disenfranchisement tool has been abandoned. It's time to keep primaries open when no other candidate's name will appear on the general election ballot.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The write-in candidate for Florida House District 36 is Joseph Antimo Verola. An editorial Tuesday did not include his full name.