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  1. Florida Politics

State House District 64 election result remains in limbo

James Grant, who was first elected to the state House District 64 seat in 2010, said he agrees with the panel of appellate judges that said the law requiring write-in candidates to live within the district to qualify is unconstitutional.
James Grant, who was first elected to the state House District 64 seat in 2010, said he agrees with the panel of appellate judges that said the law requiring write-in candidates to live within the district to qualify is unconstitutional.
Published Nov. 13, 2014

More than a week after Election Day, the nearly 160,000 residents of state House District 64 still don't know who will be representing them in Tallahassee.

Because the race is still tied up in court, the district that includes northwestern Hillsborough and northeastern Pinellas counties will not send anyone to a swearing-in ceremony Tuesday in which the representatives caucus and nominate party leadership.

In the election, held last week, incumbent James Grant beat challenger Miriam Steinberg, 59.5 percent to 40.5 percent.

But not so fast.

The race between the two Republicans was deferred from the primary to the general election because of legal questions about their write-in opponent — Daniel John Matthews, who lived outside the district boundaries. Was he legally required to live within District 64 at the time of the campaign, or only later if he were to be elected?

At first, a trial court said he had to live in the district. Then a panel of appeals judges said he didn't. Then this month the full appeals court refused to consider the case at all. Now Steinberg is taking it to the state Supreme Court.

Grant, who was first elected to the seat in 2010, said he agrees with the panel of appellate judges — that the law requiring write-ins to live within the district to qualify is unconstitutional. He wants to have another election, with Matthews included.

"How do I go to Tallahassee and take an oath to uphold the Constitution and have gotten there in an election that directly violated the Constitution?" Grant asked rhetorically.

The state Constitution says candidates must live within the district in which they are running by the time they are elected. But a law states write-in candidates must live within the district to qualify for the campaign.

A circuit court judge originally ruled Matthews was ineligible. But in October, a panel of judges from the 1st District Court of Appeal said the law requiring write-ins to live in the district contradicted the Constitution. The panel called upon the circuit court "to address the issues of any necessary special elections."

In the meantime, the election went on, without Matthews.

Steinberg's attorney — and husband — Michael Steinberg filed for a rehearing in front of the full appellate court. The motion was denied, essentially letting the panel's ruling stand.

Shortly after, Michael Steinberg filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court. The appeal is pending.

Michael Steinberg said he does not believe the requirement for write-in candidates to live in the district is unconstitutional. In fact, he said, allowing Matthews on the ballot would disenfranchise Democrats and independents.

That's because of Florida's closed primary law.

If only candidates from the same party are running for the office, that primary must be open to all eligible voters regardless of party. But if there is some other candidate running for the office — even a write-in for the general election — the law requires that primary be restricted to only eligible voters of that particular party. In this case, both candidates are Republicans.

Election officials are waiting on what the court tells them to do.

In a short written statement Wednesday, Brittany Lesser, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, said the "matter is before the courts."

Said Gerri Kramer, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County supervisor of elections. "If we get court direction, then we follow what the court tells us."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 226-3446 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.