Published March 9, 2008|Updated March 24, 2008

In the special election to replace state Rep. Frank Peterman, nearly 25,000 registered voters will have no say. For all the talk about voter empowerment in the capital these days, you can lay this one at the feet of the partisans in the Florida Legislature.

Peterman is the new secretary of juvenile justice, and the House district he leaves, No. 55, snakes through four Tampa Bay counties linking large numbers of black and Democratic voters. Republican candidates and independents, as a result, don't generally compete.

That should mean, under a constitutional amendment voters adopted a decade ago, that the March 25 primary is open to all voters. After all, only three Democrats are competing, and the winner will effectively be elected to office. But lawmakers have demeaned the open-primary mandate by letting write-in candidates abuse it.

Write-in candidates pay no qualifying fee, file no petitions and their names don't appear on the ballot. But they can, by their mere presence, close a primary that would otherwise be open. The scam is now so commonplace that a 2006 Senate analysis of 30 legislative races between a primary winner and a write-in pegged the average margin of victory at 99.8 percent. In six races, the write-in candidates got no votes, including their own.

In the District 55 race, a woman with no political experience and a personal grudge against former St. Petersburg NAACP president Darryl Rouson filed at the last minute as a write-in. Rouson is a former Republican, and she apparently believes that keeping independents and Republicans away from the polls will hurt him (though the assessment may be politically naive).

The woman's designated "campaign treasurer," Brian Pitts, goes further. He says she talked with former Pinellas Democratic chairman Ed Helm before making her decision. Said Pitts: "He (Helm) said, 'Hey, we don't want Rouson to win.'"

Whether or not Helm was involved, the point is that no write-in candidate should be allowed to game the system so that voters are left out. But it keeps happening over and over, throughout Florida, and both parties have dirty hands. Maybe Gov. Charlie Crist, who has worked to make sure every vote counts, can end this fraud.