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Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph and Property Appraiser Rick Singh listen to Judge Keith White's ruling on their suit against Orange County.

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Supreme Court upholds Orange County’s nonpartisan elections law

On Friday, Florida’s Supreme Court upheld an Orange County charter amendment to make the county’s constitutional officers nonpartisan, a decision that could open partisan and nonpartisan debates in other counties.

By a 4-3 vote, the court quashed a lower-court ruling that had kept Orange County’s elections partisan for the constitutional offices of sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, clerk of courts, comptroller, and elections supervisor through the 2016 and 2018 elections, while lawyers had been battling over whether a 2014 charter amendment should be applied.

It should, the court ruled Friday.

That means those six Orange County offices would be nonpartisan in the next round of elections. The Supreme Court’s decision also may hold ramifications for other counties around Florida that are or may be mulling whether to transform constitutional offices into nonpartisan positions.

“That sounds like a win for Orange County voters,” said Orange County Republican Chairman Charles Hart.

Technically, that is true.

In 2014 the Orange County Commission put the question on the countywide ballot, asking voters to consider making the constitutional officer elections and offices nonpartisan. Until then they had been partisan. Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, with 70 percent voting yes. A similar issue, essentially a confirmation question that also sought to clarify a couple of legal points, was placed on the 2016 county ballot. It was also approved by 70 percent of Orange County voters.

Those overwhelming results had led then-Mayor Teresa Jacobs to insist the nonpartisan definitions clearly were the will of the voters.

Yet Hart’s comment also belies a reality that Friday’s decision emerged from an Orange County battle that had a highly partisan backdrop that dated back to a 2012 fight, and which has led, through the 2018 election, to an increasingly Democratic county. And the Orange County Democratic Chair Wes Hodge contends that the votes, especially in the 2018 election, show the voters will is to know candidates’ parties so they may choose Democrats.

By 2014 Republicans held the county mayoral office and five of the other six seats on the county commission, but were losing power. Democrats had come to dominate the county’s voter registration and held most of the constitutional offices in Orange County. The Republican-dominated commission, led by Jacobs, adopted an ordinance sending a ballot issue to voters to make those constitutional offices nonpartisan, and to establish term limits for them. That could provide more longterm opportunity for Republicans.

By the time of the November 2014 election, the question was challenged in court. Then-Sheriff Jerry Demings, Property Appraiser Rick Singh, and Tax Collector Scott Randolph, all Democrats, already had sued, seeking to have the matter removed from the ballot; or, if there wasn’t time for that, to have any vote invalidated. They contended that the county could not, even through a county-wide referendum, redefine the six offices, because the offices were created by the Florida Constitution, not by the county, so that only state law could define them.

Demings, who is now mayor, eventually was dismissed from the suit. Singh and Randolph stayed on.

“This is a wild attempt by the court to craft election code that doesn’t fit,” Singh said of Friday’s ruling. “This creates confusion in the minds of voters, and we’re back to square one, going back to the drawing board.”

“From what I know the court has created a winner-take-all election in November, with no primaries and no runoffs,” Randolph said. “The court has now created an election scenario that does not exist in state election code.”

Jacobs, now the chair of the Orange County School Board, said “It’s a good day for Orange County citizens.” She noted that the decision is final, and that Orange County voters had made it clear they prefer nonpartisan elections. Not only had the approved the 2014 charter amendment tested by the courts, but they also had rejected a different charter amendment that would have made the mayor’s race and the Orange County Commission races partisan.

“You take those labels away from races where those labels shouldn’t matter … you end up with an informed electorate, and you end up with candidates that more closely reflect the voice of the people, rather than the voices of the parties,” Jacobs said.

In 2016 a 9th Judicial Circuit judge upheld the part of the ballot initiative involving term limits. But he invalidated the part that would have made the offices nonpartisan. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

Friday the Florida Supreme Court reversed that, quashing the lower court’s decision.

Justice Peggy Quince wrote for the majority, with Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Jorge Labarga concurring. She agreed with the lower court’s reasoning that Orange County had erred in part because the 2014 ballot initiative tried to place nonpartisan elections of constitutional officers in the primary election, along with the already nonpartisan mayoral and county commission elections. Constitutional officers must be chosen in the general elections, the Supreme Court’s majority concluded. But that’s where the majority split with the lower court. Quince wrote that requiring the elections to be on the general election ballot does not mean they have to be partisan races, since not all general election candidates get to that ballot through partisan primaries.

The Florida Constitution “provides for the election of county constitutional officers, requiring that the officers appear on the general election ballot, but does not specifically label such election as ‘partisan’ or ‘nonpartisan,'” Quince wrote.

Justice Ricky Polston wrote a scathing dissent, with Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justice Alan Lawson concurring. He argued that Florida’s state law expressly states that candidates for county offices are to compete in partisan primary elections.

Hodge said he agreed with Polston’s dissent. Hodge added that Orange County voters made it clear in the 2018 elections that they want to vote on a partisan basis, as Democrats dominated the results.

Today Democrats hold all six constitutional offices in Orange County.

“We knew that the 2014 Orange County ballot initiative regarding nonpartisan elections embodied complex political and legal issues, which has now been manifested by a Florida Supreme Court ruling,” Demings stated in a response issued by his office. “The voters deserved for the issues to be clarified by the courts and we have a ruling that while imperfect, allows us to move forward. A portion of the county’s ordinance was severed by the Supreme Court but leaves us with an ordinance and guidance for the future. As mayor, I will work with the Orange County Supervisor of Elections to ensure elections of our constitutional officers comply with Florida law.”

Things have changed dramatically in Orange County government, just in the last few weeks.

Demings, who once was with Singh and Randolph seeking to invalidate the 2014 charter amendment, is now mayor. Jacobs, who had led support for the 2014 charter amendment, is now out, due to term limits. Also, Republicans had retained control of the Orange County Commission through November, but they lost that power in the most recent elections. Today, in addition to the mayor’s office, the Democrats hold four of the other six commission seats.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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