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The write-in ruse

The state Division of Elections should stipulate that the presence of a write-in candidate is not cause to close a primary.

It has been argued hotly in Florida and elsewhere as to whether political parties should be able to keep non-members out of their primaries. Consensus isn't in sight. One point ought to be clear, however. In the limited circumstance where a nominee will have no general election opponent, Florida's Constitution now lets every voter participate in the primary for that office. Like it or not _ and plenty of politicians don't _ 2.2-million Floridians supported the revision containing this provision as it passed in 1998 with 64 percent of the vote. That fact deserves respect.

But the language wasn't as precise as it might have been, and some highly partisan Republicans in the Florida House of Representatives set out to subvert the people's will. Last year and this, they blocked bills stipulating that write-in candidacies would not be considered "opposition."

In the absence of a clarifying statute, and with primaries approaching, the Division of Elections has issued an opinion saying that where a write-in candidate has filed, but only one party has candidates, the primary remains closed to all but that party's registrants. How many write-ins will now be ringers, secretly recruited by party bosses?

This brings to mind Mr. Bumble's remark, "If the law says that, the law is a ass." Write-in candidates are opponents in name only. They pay no filing fee, submit no petitions. They do not appear on the ballot. They never win. They never even threaten or even tip a balance.

It would be better, to be sure, if the parties vigorously contested every office in November elections. But that dream is far distant from present reality. Republicans so dominate some constituencies, as Democrats dominate others, that hundreds of thousands of Floridians are chronically voteless for legislators, sheriffs, county commissioners, school board members and other important offices.

In 1998, the Constitution Revision Commission came up with what struck its members as a modest compromise: When the primary election will be the only election, treat it as if it were the general election. According to Dexter Douglass, the chairman, no one anticipated a write-in problem.

"Nobody thought anybody would be that ridiculous," he said.

The Division of Elections is proposing to draft an administrative rule that presumably would incorporate its nonbinding opinion. The rulemaking process is an opportunity for public interest groups to support the revision commission's original intentions, and they should make use of it. Attorney General Bob Butterworth's intervention would be welcome, too.