Court ruling leaves Tampa Bay area state House election up in the air

Published Oct. 17, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — A Florida appeals court ruled Thursday that a write-in candidate was wrongly disqualified from running for a Tampa Bay state House seat, likely cancelling a primary election for the second time.

Rep. Jamie Grant and fellow Republican Miriam Steinberg were supposed to face off in a primary on Nov. 4 that was open to all voters in House District 64, which includes parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. With only two candidates, the primary — postponed from October over questions involving a write-in candidate — would have settled the question of who represents the district, which includes Carrollwood, Citrus Park, Oldsmar and Safety Harbor.

But a panel of judges at the First District Court of Appeal reversed a lower court ruling that kicked write-in candidate Daniel John Matthews off the ballot.

Grant said he was unsure how the ruling will affect him and his staff because his term technically ends on Election Day. He said he will continue to campaign for re-election in the district and hope the courts provide clarity.

"One of these days we'll be on the ballot in a race that counts," he said.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Angela Dempsey ruled in July that Matthews did not reside in the district at the time of qualifying, therefore failing to meet the requirements under state law. But Matthews appealed the ruling, saying the Florida Constitution requires legislators to live in the district only at the time of election.

The appeals court agreed and said the Florida law treating write-in candidates differently from others is unconstitutional.

The case was sent back to Leon County Circuit Court, where the issue of a need for any special elections will be decided.

The appeals court also affirmed a lower court's opinion in a similar case involving a write-in candidate for House District 96 in Broward County. A different Leon County circuit judge, George Reynolds, ruled in July that Ronald Bray should remain on the ballot, effectively closing the primary between Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs and former state Rep. Steve Perman to Democrats only.

Jacobs won the primary and faces write-in Bray in the Nov. 4 general election. The First DCA opinion today said Reynolds had ruled correctly to allow Bray as a candidate.

Attorney Michael Steinberg, Miriam Steinberg's husband, said he plans to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. He also said he will try to change the state Constitution through a ballot initiative to require write-ins to live in the district when they qualify to run for office to "close the write-in loophole," he said.

Grant said he would like the law regarding write-in candidates to be clarified in the upcoming session.

"There needs to be some legislation, I think, to clear this whole thing up," he said.

The Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections is waiting for further direction from the courts before determining how the appellate ruling will affect the scheduled Nov. 4 primary between Grant and Steinberg already printed on mail ballots, a spokeswoman said.

Contact Tia Mitchell at (850) 224-7263 or Follow @tbtia.