The Hillsborough County Democratic Party has filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent a referendum that would make the county's constitutional offices non-partisan positions.
The county Democrats charge the measure is "self-serving politics" and a voter suppression attempt by the Republican majority on the Board of County Commissioners, in the words of county Democratic Chairwoman Ione Townsend.
The lawsuit filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court names county elections Supervisor Craig Latimer – a Democrat – as defendant. The suit seeks to keep him from putting the measure on the November election ballot, Townsend said.
But the real target is the five-member Republican majority on the seven-member board of commissioners. The vote to place the measure on the ballot was 5-2, divided along party lines.
Currently the county's five constitutional officers run as Democrats or Republicans. They are the sheriff, elections supervisor, property appraiser, tax collector and clerk of court.
If presented to voters and approved Nov. 6, the measure would change the offices to non-partisan like the school board and judgeships.
Democrats contend in the lawsuit that the measure amounts to voter suppression, calling it an attempt to maintain GOP political control in Hillsborough even as the county's voter base grows more Democratic.
As evidence of this, Townsend pointed to the commissioners' decision to change other offices but not their own to non-partisan positions.
Constitutional officers are elected in presidential election years when Democratic voter turnout is higher than during so-called mid-term elections. Four of the seven commission seats, on the other hand, come up for election during those mid-term elections with their diminished Democratic turnout.
Democrats hold three of the constitutional offices. In addition, Democrat Andrew Warren ousted incumbent Republican Mark Ober as state attorney in the 2016 election.
Townsend said the measure amounts to voter suppression because non-partisan elections in the county typically draw 100,000 to 130,000 fewer voters than partisan elections.
"It's an attempt to guarantee that GOP continues to control a majority by having partisan elections in mid-terms," she said.
Clearwater lawyer Ryan Barack, who represents the Democratic Party in the lawsuit, said case law in Florida has established that the process in the state Constitution for electing county constitutional officers doesn't allow for non-partisan elections.
He said the referendum measure would also violate the county charter.
But Republicans said the elections for the officers should be non-partisan because their jobs are.
"These offices really should be non-partisan in nature, said Commissioner Stacy White. "They're about law enforcement in the county, taxation, about the elections supervisor leading a process for fair and neutral elections. Partisan politics should not enter into play."
White said non-partisan races tend to be further down the ballot and draw less advance attention, which could explain why they attract fewer voters.
Commissioner Victor Crist called the lawsuit "an extremely warped spin."
"It looks to me like the Democratic Party of Hillsborough County is not being very democratic here," Crist said. "Let the people decide."
Those in favor of the measure also argued that it would actually increase voter participation by allowing no-party and minor-party voters to vote in primary elections for the offices. These voters cannot cast ballots in partisan primary elections.
But when the commissioners debated the measure, representatives of both parties opposed it.