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Endorsing is part of free speech exercise

Tonight in Clearwater, the 300-plus people who make up the Republican Executive Committee of Pinellas County are scheduled to meet. There are sure to be plenty of post-mortems of Tuesday's primary election, and a lot of looking ahead.

One topic that could come up is the party's practice of endorsing candidates, instead of remaining a neutral observer. The party not only is taking sides in some of its own Republican primary contests, but it also is endorsing candidates in non-partisan races for School Board and judgeships.

The wisdom of a party taking sides in its own primary is debatable, but that is an internal family matter for the Republicans to handle as they see fit. Non-Republicans have a legitimate stake, however, in the debate over party endorsements in non-partisan races.

"Non-partisan" means that an elected office does not involve a party label. The ballot does not say whether the candidates are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians or so forth. In fact, candidates in these races are not supposed to talk about their party at all.

However, it is a different question as to how private citizens should use party label in non-partisan elections. Should Republicans, Democrats, Reformers and so forth actively get behind candidates? Is it bad for a voter to say, "The ballot doesn't say so, but I know this person is of the same party as me, so I will vote for him"?

A reasonable argument can be made that citizens should refrain from using party labels at all in these races. Under that argument, these public offices are "non-partisan" for a good reason. Florida's voters decided, by amendment to the Constitution, that School Board seats have nothing to do with party, but only with good schools.

The argument even is stronger when it comes to judgeships. Judges are supposed to obey nothing except the law. In theory, a Republican judge is going to be applying the same law and wearing the same black robe as a Democratic judge.

A candidate for judge who brags about being a Democrat or a Republican is suggesting he or she is biased, which is why it is forbidden. According to the argument against endorsements, a political party getting behind a candidate also implies a hint of bias. It puts pressure on candidates to take partisan stands to win the endorsement. It generally undermines public confidence in judges.

I hope this is a fair summary of the argument against a political party making endorsements. I hope it is a fair summary because, all things considered, I still cannot justify telling a group of citizens that they should not engage in a basic American political activity.

Citizens assembling to influence the outcome of an election is desirable, basic, First Amendment speech _ the kind of speech, above all other, meant to be protected. You can debate whether nude dancing is "art," but there is no doubt whatsoever about whether taking sides in an election is free speech.

Opponents of endorsements admit that there is a First Amendment right to do it _ but that parties should refrain anyway, as a matter of policy, because of the alleged potential bad effects. This is an interesting contention, that the exercise of the Bill of Rights is unhealthy.

There is no evidence that party endorsements have had ill effects. Candidates remain tightly bound by a code of conduct. They may be _ and are _ punished for violating the rules of non-partisanship. The restraint falls properly on the candidates, and not the citizens, who should be free to assemble and shout their partisanship to the sky.

It is not a coincidence that some who arae critical of party endorsements also wish that trial judges were not elected in the first place. But that is an entirely separate issue. As it stands, the people elect their judges. Critics are dismayed at this and urge us to restrain our populist excess _ yes, you lowly riff-raff, you may vote, but you must try not to act so darned political about it.

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